National News

U.S. prepares to house up to 20,000 migrants on military bases

WASHINGTON -- The United States is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four American military bases, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday, as federal officials struggled to carry out President Donald Trump's order to keep immigrant families together after they are apprehended at the border.

Posted Updated

Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper
Katie Benner, New York Times

WASHINGTON — The United States is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four American military bases, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday, as federal officials struggled to carry out President Donald Trump’s order to keep immigrant families together after they are apprehended at the border.

The 20,000 beds at bases in Texas and Arkansas would house “unaccompanied alien children,” said a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Michael Andrews, although other federal agencies provided conflicting explanations about how the shelters would be used and who would be housed there.

It was unclear whether the military housing would also house the parents of children in migrant families that have been detained, and officials at the White House, the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday they could not provide details.

The Pentagon announcement followed Trump’s executive order on Wednesday to keep families together after they illegally cross the Mexican border with the United States.

Trump said he would end his practice of separating parents from children and called for detaining families at the same location.

Democrats questioned the 20,000-bed plan. “Is it even feasible?” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York asked from the Senate floor.

Advocates for the migrants expressed concern about the prospect of vast settlements of families housed on military bases and described widespread uncertainty at the border.

“There’s conflicting instructions being given,” said Michelle Brané, the director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It’s another example of this administration making these big, bold policy announcements with no plan for how they are going to implement them.”

“It’s adding to the chaos on the ground,” she said. Trump’s order directed Pentagon officials to provide “any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families” and to “construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law.”

Just hours earlier on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sidestepped questions about whether bases might be used as migrant camps, except to say, “We have housed refugees. We have housed people thrown out of their homes by earthquakes and hurricanes.”

“We do whatever is in the best interest of the country,” Mattis said.

The tumult echoed the level of confusion among law enforcement agencies at airports after Trump barred travel for visitors from predominantly Muslim countries a week after he took office last year.

According to estimates, more than 2,300 children under 12 — many of whom are toddlers and infants — are being held in special “tender age” shelters.

Initially, a Trump administration spokesman said Wednesday afternoon that the government would not reunite those children with their parents. But that was contradicted Wednesday night by a more senior official. On Thursday, Justice Department officials denied a report, apparently issued by officials from another agency, that prosecutions of immigrants traveling with families had been suspended.

Scrambling to adjust and comply with the president’s order, the Border Patrol temporarily stopped referring immigration cases for prosecution to the Justice Department, setting off rumors that they would be halted altogether.

That forced the Justice Department to insist in a statement that “there has been no change to the department’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy to prosecute adults who cross our border illegally instead of claiming asylum at any port of entry at the border.”

Two internal Customs and Border Protection emails supplied to The New York Times showed similar confusion.

They showed that at 9:54 p.m. Wednesday, a top Border Patrol official told supervisors they could continue prosecution referrals for one parent who entered the country illegally if there was another adult migrant present.

But at 4:09 a.m. Thursday, the official, Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings, followed up with another email. It said agents should “maintain family unity for multi-parent/adult families, and suspend Section 1325 prosecution referrals.” That section of immigration law refers to illegal entry into the United States by foreigners.

But the confusion did little to change the plight of many migrant children being detained. Last week, federal officials opened a tent city outside El Paso, Texas, to house up to 360 immigrant teenagers in custody. The temporary shelter site, at a border station in Tornillo, Texas, was still in use Thursday, and its capacity remains 360, officials said.

In the border city of Del Rio in South Texas, U.S. officials continued deporting unauthorized immigrants. One 20-year-old man, Luis Alexis Morales, of Veracruz state in eastern Mexico, was left in the middle of the long bridge that links Del Rio with Ciudad Acuña.

“The Border Patrol caught me a week ago crossing the river near Piedras Negras,” Morales said, referring to a city in northern Mexico across from Eagle Pass, Texas. He said U.S. authorities held him jail for the last seven days before deporting him.

In Washington, Trump’s lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles, to modify a 1997 court ruling to allow the indefinite detention of families.

The ruling, known as the Flores settlement, requires that children must be released from the custody of immigration enforcement authorities within 20 days. After that, they are to be transferred to the care of a family member or placed in the custody of a licensed, government-sponsored shelter for children.

The Justice Department said the only way to prevent migrant children from being separated from their parents — while still enforcing laws against illegal entry into the country — would be to detain entire families. It seemed to suggest that the practice of separating families could resume at some point if the judge refused the request to alter the 1997 ruling. But it also echoed a 2016 argument by the administration of President Barack Obama during a similar migrant surge across the southwest border. The judge, and an appeals court, denied the requests by the Obama administration lawyers.

In 2014, the Obama administration briefly sheltered migrant children at military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma, establishing emergency housing for a steep increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Around 7,000 children were temporarily housed on the bases for about three months until the number of migrants ebbed.

At the time, officials said the government was responding to a sharp spike in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the Southwest border without parents or relatives, fleeing violence in Central American countries. During the Obama administration, the military’s role was limited to housing and giving base access to officials from the Department of Health and Human Services.

It was unclear Thursday whether the military would play a more central role in Trump’s plan. He made no public comment on how his executive order was being carried out.

He also resumed angrily lashing out at “extremist, open-border Democrats” following his own retreat on the issue of separating families. And Trump again falsely blamed Democrats for the political crisis that continues to roil his administration and was amplified in recent days by images and recordings of young children crying for their parents.

Choosing hard-edge remarks at a Cabinet meeting before the House was scheduled to vote on overhauling immigration laws, Trump begged for Democratic lawmakers’ support on the legislation even as he said they were causing “tremendous damage and destruction and lives.” He repeated his false claim that Democrats forced family separations.

“They don’t care about the children. They don’t care about the injury. They don’t care about the problems,” Trump said, a scowl on his face and his arms crossed. “They don’t care about anything.” In a stream-of-consciousness commentary, the president also attacked Mexico for what he claimed was a failure to help stop illegal immigration into the United States. He said the trek through Mexico from Central America was like a walk through Central Park in New York City.

“Mexico is doing nothing for us except taking our money and giving us drugs,” he said.

Trump said he has directed his administration to “keep illegal immigrant families together and to reunite these previously separated groups.” But he offered no details about how the government intends to bring the families back together.

Melania Trump, the first lady, visited a facility in McAllen, Texas, that is holding 55 children who have been separated from their parents. She toured the New Hope Children’s Shelter, and met with some of the children being held there. In one classroom, she met with a group of children, some of whom spoke to her in English and others in Spanish, which was translated by their teacher. Officials at the shelter said that the children held there are allowed to communicate with their families by phone twice a week.

“How long are you here? Where are you from?” asked Melania Trump, who traveled with Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary. As she left she said, “Be kind and nice to other, OK? Nice to meet you.”

Back at the White House, Donald Trump’s attitude was less gracious as he began his day with a series of angry posts on Twitter and demands for changes in the nation’s immigration laws.

House lawmakers had been scheduled to vote on two broad immigration proposals on Thursday, even as the executive order relieved some of the pressure to act quickly.

But Republican leaders delayed a vote on the broader bill, which would provide a path to citizenship for young unauthorized immigrants while keeping migrant families together at the border. The measure had appeared destined to fail as Republicans remained at odds over immigration.

The bill, a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans, had been set for a vote early Thursday evening, but the vote will now take place next week. The House rejected a hard-line immigration bill in a vote Thursday afternoon, as had been expected.

Trump on Thursday again said that action by Congress would be the best way to resolve the political and human crisis on the border involving immigrant families.

But critics of the president announced that they were not waiting for Congress to act. A coalition of 10 states filed a lawsuit aimed at making sure that the Trump administration does not continue to separate children from their parents at the border.

“President Trump yesterday signed an empty and meaningless order that claims to take back policies that he put in place himself as a political stunt,” said Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, who is a plaintiff in the suit. “Meanwhile these children, their parents, and people around the world need answers regarding what comes next.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed a separate lawsuit that demands the government stop separating families and reunite the children who have already been separated with the parents who brought them into the United States.