The day after President Trump claimed he had acted to keep migrant families together, the fate of more than 2,300 children held separately from their parents and that of future asylum-seeking families remained uncertain Thursday.
The confusion ensured the president’s self-inflicted political and humanitarian crisis would continue as government officials, attorneys and immigration advocates struggled to understand and implement the revised policy.
As officials in Washington scrambled to develop a plan to reunite immigrant families, administration lawyers went to federal court in Los Angeles, seeking a change in previous rulings that have limited how long the government can hold children in custody.
The Justice Department asked the court for “limited emergency relief” that would allow immigration officials to “detain alien minors who have arrived with their parent or legal guardian together in [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] family residential facilities.”
The change in the rules is justified because of the “ongoing and worsening influx of families unlawfully entering the United States at the southwest border,” the lawyers told the court. Under current rules, the government can hold children for no more than 20 days, Justice Department officials say.
Under the order Trump signed Wednesday, officials plan to hold as many as 20,000 people who crossed the border illegally — many who have asked for asylum in the U.S. — for extended periods in makeshift housing on military bases. Officials have visited four bases in Texas and Arkansas to inspect their facilities, said Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman.
Numerous officials throughout the administration declined to answer questions about how that policy would be implemented or how, when or whether family reunifications would take place. Not only was the public being left in the dark, but members of Congress complained that they were failing to get answers, a problem that has persisted since the separation crisis began.
In an indication of the political pressures that moderate Republican elected officials feel on the issue, Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican from a swing congressional district in Colorado, demanded that Trump fire his top advisor on immigration, White House aide Stephen Miller.
For the third consecutive day, the White House did not schedule the usual daily news briefing.
First Lady Melania Trump, who privately urged the president to reverse his controversial family separation policy, visited the Upbring New Hope Children’s Shelter in McAllen, Texas. The facility currently holds roughly 55 migrant children, mostly from Guatemala, including six who had been separated from their parents, officials said. She toured the facility and met for a bit over an hour with officials and some of the children.
“I’m here to learn about your facility,” she said during a conversation with officials inside the shelter. “I’m also here to ask you how I can help to reunite these children with their families as quickly as possible.”
The first lady’s visit, which was kept a secret until her arrival at the facility, offered a twist and a new media image for an administration responding to a continuing crisis.
Her spokeswoman made a point of noting that Trump chose to tour the site on her own, not as an emissary of her husband.
“This was 100% her idea,” Stephanie Grisham told reporters. “He is supportive of it, but she told him, ‘I’m heading down to Texas.’”
Her visit generated a social media flurry during the day because while boarding her plane to leave Washington, she was seen wearing a jacket that had the words “I really don’t care. Do U?” in white lettering on the back.
Grisham told reporters that the issue was overblown. "It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message,” she said.
Her appearance did little to clear up the confusion about the fate of the 2,342 migrant children already separated from their parents and scattered across 17 states.
“This is all smoke and mirrors from the administration,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, the executive director of Voto Latino, which is organizing a protest rally in Tornillo, Texas, where the government’s first child detention center is based.
“We will not stop until these children are reunited with their families.”
The high-profile visit also underscored the administration’s continued concern about widespread public outrage over family separation, driven by saturation media coverage and images of children alone inside detention centers.
“The hard part for them is how do you logistically do this so it doesn’t turn into a Katrina problem where we have four months of stories similar to those about people being left in the Superdome,” said one Trump ally in close contact with the administration, referring to the aftermath of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 and which politically damaged President George W. Bush’s administration.
A group of 10 Democratic state attorneys general, including California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, announced they would sue the administration over its policy.
The president, as he has throughout the controversy, sought again to place the blame on his political opposition.
Democrats “want us to take care of bed space and resources and personnel and take everybody and — you know, like, let’s run the most luxurious hotel in the world for everybody — but they don’t want to give us the money,” he said, as he spoke for more than half an hour in a sometimes-rambling discourse in the Cabinet Room.
He also lashed out at Mexico, saying that country could block Central Americans from traveling to the U.S. border. “Mexico is doing nothing for us except taking our money and giving us drugs,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the president made the passage of new immigration legislation more difficult, firing off a tweet that questioned why Republicans in the House were even bothering to seek a legislative solution. “What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills” when they’re unlikely to pass in the Senate, he asked.
That remark upset plans by House GOP leaders, who have been trying to round up enough Republican votes to pass an immigration bill in their chamber. They had planned to bring two immigration measures to the floor for votes Thursday. After Trump’s tweet, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) held a news conference in which he all but conceded that the effort to pass a bill in the House probably would fail.
Later in the day, the House defeated one of the two bills — a hard-line measure backed by conservative Republicans. The House leadership, fearing an embarrassing defeat, postponed until next week a vote on the second measure, which it has billed as a compromise between conservatives and more moderate Republicans.
The legislative maneuverings, however, were largely overshadowed by questions about when or if families would be reunified.
Even with the best of intentions, reuniting children who have been placed in detention overseen by a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services with parents being held by the U.S. Marshals Service is a challenge, given the web of competing bureaucracies and the unusual nature of the Trump administration’s separation policy.
“Those systems are not linked,” said Megan McKenna, spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense, a legal aid group that assists immigrant children. “So it’s kind of an ad hoc process.”
Each family member apprehended at the border is given an alien number by the Department of Homeland Security when they are taken into custody, but individuals’ numbers are not linked to other members of their family, said Jennifer Podkul, the group’s policy director.
Immigrants taken into detention usually stay from between a few hours to a couple of days in a temporary facility operated by the Border Patrol, where they are fingerprinted and held. The Border Patrol then typically turns them over to the marshals service, which takes the parents to a facility run by the Bureau of Prisons, where they spend several more days in custody before being taken to a court hearing where they typically plead guilty to illegal entry into the U.S., a misdemeanor, and are sentenced to time served.
Children, meanwhile, are often taken to any of more than 100 facilities scattered across the country that are overseen by HHS. Some have been held in facilities run by the Border Patrol.
Once the criminal proceeding is finished, adults are typically returned to the custody of Homeland Security, which can hold them until they are given a deportation hearing. Those who have an asylum claim, as many recent migrants do, can raise it at that point. In some cases, parents are given an option to accept deportation without a hearing, along with their children, and are sent back on the next flight.
McKenna said her group depends on individual clues to reunite families, including the location where the family crossed the border and the level of offense with which a parent is charged. In some cases, she said, children have remained in custody even after parents were deported, creating an additional challenge.
Members of Congress have expressed mounting frustration over their inability to get information about that process.
“We have no idea what they’re doing,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who is her party’s senior member on the committee that oversees HHS, said in an interview. “It is just beyond reprehensible that the administration is not answering these questions.”
“We don’t know where those children are,” Murray said. She also sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar demanding to know “how parents and children are being informed about each other’s safety, where they are located, the age of the children and if the tender-aged children are being cared for appropriately, and if and when parents and children will be reunited.”