Washington (AFP) – An intensifying battle over the splitting of immigrant families shifted Tuesday to Congress, where a defiant President Donald Trump will face Republican lawmakers deeply uncomfortable with the mushrooming crisis on America’s southern border.
While top administration officials have stood by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, insisting children are being held in humane conditions, criticism has swelled from international rights groups, Christian evangelicals, former US first ladies and the president’s own party.
Lawmakers who visited minors in detention in Texas and California have described crying children held in cage-like conditions behind chain link fencing, with no idea when they will see their parents again.
A chorus of critics, including a group of 75 former US attorneys who served under Democratic and Republican presidents, are demanding an immediate end to the separations, occurring as a result of an administration policy to prosecute anyone who crosses the border illegally.
But a defiant Trump has vowed America would not become a “migrant camp,” while simultaneously accusing Democrats of provoking the current crisis by blocking legislation to combat illegal immigration.
“Democrats are the problem,” he tweeted ahead of his afternoon huddle with House Republicans, charging that his opponents “don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country.”
US authorities, he tweeted, should “always arrest people” who cross the border illegally. “If you don’t have Borders, you don’t have a Country!”
“#CHANGETHELAWS Now is the best opportunity ever for Congress to change the ridiculous and obsolete laws on immigration.”
With influential Republicans including senators John McCain and John Cornyn demanding an end to the separations, the House is expected to consider two immigration bills.
One is a hardline measure favored by conservatives, and the other a compromise bill — which the White House has signalled has Trump’s support — that would end family separations, protect so-called Dreamer immigrants brought to the country as children, pay for boosted border security, and curtail legal immigration.
– ‘Dishonest’ –
The United Nations has slammed the separation practice as unconscionable, while Amnesty International blasted it as “nothing short of torture” and Mexico’s foreign minister condemned it Tuesday as “cruel and inhuman.”
Tuesday’s Republican huddle will be closely watched, in part to see whether any lawmakers directly confront the president.
Several House Republicans face tough re-election fights in November, and some may worry that public outrage over the family separations could hurt their chances.
Democrats say the crisis is of Trump’s own making, and accuse him of using children as pawns.
“They’re doing this to get other bad immigration policy,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Monday after visiting detention facilities.
Trump has repeatedly stoked fears of migrant-driven crime to advance his anti-immigration agenda.
He said this week European countries made a “big mistake” by taking in thousands of asylum seekers in recent years, and incorrectly claimed that crime in Germany has risen as a result.
US officials say more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents or guardians since early May, when the administration announced its “zero tolerance” push to arrest and charge anyone illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, regardless of whether they were seeking asylum.
Since children cannot be sent to the facilities where their parents are held, they are separated from them.
An audio recording released by transparency group ProPublica — and widely relayed on social media — purports to feature Central American children separated from their parents sobbing and wailing.
“Mommy! I want to go with dad,” a young girl is heard crying out.
Separated children make up a minority of immigrant minors in US custody.
The Department of Health and Human Services said there are currently 11,700 children under its care in 100 shelters across 17 states.
The majority crossed the border without their parents.
– ‘You alone can fix it’ –
US public opinion appears divided along partisan lines on the family separations, with two-thirds of all voters opposed, but 55 percent of Republicans supporting the policy, according to a Quinnipiac University National Poll.
A disgusted McCain called the policy “an affront to the decency of the American people” that should be rescinded immediately, while Christian groups have also spoken out.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced Monday to rebut comparisons to the policies of Nazi Germany — which he called “a real exaggeration.”
Democrats have meanwhile reminded Trump that he campaigned in 2016 with the message that “I alone can fix it,” but now is punting to Congress.
“Mr. President, you alone can fix it… with the flick of a pen,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said from the Senate floor.
“Blaming others for your decision is cheap, easy and dishonest.”