McAllen (United States) (AFP) – Melania Trump made a surprise trip to the US-Mexican border on Thursday as her husband’s administration seeks to quell a firestorm over migrant family separations, while Republican lawmakers were forced to delay a high-stakes vote on the crisis.
The first lady’s unannounced visit came a day after President Donald Trump — in a stunning about-face — moved to end the practice of splitting migrant families, which had prompted outrage at home and abroad.
There was however no immediate plan in place to reunite the more than 2,300 children already separated from their families — igniting a fresh controversy over the conditions in which the children are living.
In McAllen, Texas, Melania Trump visited the Upbring New Hope Children’s Shelter, a federally-funded facility that houses some 55 children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, ages five to 17.
“I’m glad I’m here and I’m looking forward to seeing the children,” Melania said at a roundtable discussion with social workers and government officials.
“I would also like to ask you how I can help these children to reunite with their families as quickly as possible.”
Images and recordings of wailing children detained in processing centers with chain-link cage-like enclosures has ignited global outrage.
The first lady herself had called for a political compromise to end the separations — the result of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy launched in early May, under which illegal border crossers were systematically prosecuted and their children separated from them as a result.
The surprise trip “was 100 percent her idea,” the first lady’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told reporters travelling with her to Texas.
“She wanted to see everything for herself.”
One leg of the trip — a visit to a border patrol processing center — was scrapped due to flooding.
Instead, the first lady spent an hour-plus at the shelter, talking directly to children who spoke to her either in English or in Spanish, through a translator.
One girl said she had been at the shelter for two months. Another told Trump they were learning how to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“Usually when they get here, they’re very distraught,” one official said.
Melania Trump was unable to escape controversy on the trip. She boarded her plane wearing a jacket which read “I really don’t care. Do U?” — a cryptic message that sent the internet ablaze.
– Legislative drama –
The political compromise the first lady had sought so far has not materialized.
In Washington, lawmakers failed to advance either of two Republican immigration bills in the House of Representatives.
A hardline proposal was defeated, as expected.
But a vote on a “compromise” bill between the party’s hard-right and moderate wings, which ends family separations but also includes Trump priorities like curtailing legal immigration and providing some protections to young immigrants, was pushed back to at least Friday — a clear sign it lacked the votes to pass.
The failure dealt an embarrassing blow to Republicans under intense pressure by Trump’s administration to take the first legislative steps to address the issue.
The crisis was fueling a brutal partisan scrap, with Trump blaming “extremist” Democrats for refusing to help tighten border security.
“Democrats want open Borders, where anyone can come into our Country, and stay,” he tweeted.
In pushing back, top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi aimed her fire at Republicans, saying they made a “compromise with the Devil” instead of Democrats, and that Republicans were “complicit in @realDonaldTrump’s atrocities.”
– Indefinite detention? –
For weeks, Trump had insisted he was bound by law to split children from their parents and that only Congress could resolve the problem — before he radically shifted gears.
Trump’s executive order would keep families together but in custody indefinitely while parents are prosecuted for entering the country illegally — a move that could lead to new legal battles for the administration.
The Justice Department moved Thursday to modify the 1997 court ruling known as the Flores Settlement, which places a 20-day limit on how long children, alone or with their parents, can be detained.
In a sign of the broadening scope of the crisis, the Department of Health and Human Services asked the Pentagon to prepare to house up to 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on military bases, a US official said.
“The executive order certainly is helping pave the way a little bit, but there’s still a lot to be done,” Grisham acknowledged.
Trump said there was a need to sustain his “zero tolerance” policy to prevent crime.
“We still have to maintain toughness, or our country will be overrun by people, by crime,” he said.
After a downturn last year, the flow of migrants from Central America and Mexico has surged since October.
From March to May this year, more than 50,000 people a month were apprehended for illegally crossing the border from Mexico.
Nearly all of the arriving families, and many others, have officially requested asylum, citing the high levels of violence in their home countries.