Melania Trump. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR
Melania Trump. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR

McAllen — Democrats escalated their attacks on President Donald Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from parents who illegally cross the Mexican border, as public outrage over the practice balloons into an election-year headache for Republicans.

As controversy rages over the separations, first lady Melania Trump, in a rare foray into policy matters, said on Sunday through a spokeswoman that the US must be a country that "governs with heart".

And Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen took to Twitter in an attempt to clarify the policy.

Several Democrats, including some seen as 2020 presidential candidates, travelled to McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley area in Texas on Sunday to meet with US border authorities and tour a former Walmart store that has been converted into a detention centre for nearly 1,500 immigrant boys.

The McAllen delegation was led by Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Separately, Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who’s challenging Republican Senator Ted Cruz in November, planned to visit a new facility opened near El Paso he described as a "tent city".

‘Child abuse’

Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration, joined protesters outside a border patrol processing centre in McAllen, where temperatures hit 36°C.

"It amounts essentially to state-sponsored child abuse that is traumatising young children by taking them away from their parents, not letting them know when they’re going to see their parents again, keeping them in conditions that we wouldn’t want any of our children in," said Castro, regarded as a potential 2020 presidential candidate.

Trump has refused to accept responsibility for the family separation policy, which administration officials say is intended to deter undocumented immigrants from making the trek to the US border with their children.

Unspecified law

The president has repeatedly blamed the policy on Democrats, citing an unspecified law that he says requires children to be taken from parents who cross the border illegally.

White House officials are unable to cite any part of US law that dictates the separations, which were initiated in April after attorney-general Jeff Sessions announced "zero tolerance" for unlawful border crossings.

Republicans in Congress and the administration have leaned on a 1997 court settlement regarding the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody for legal justification.

The US separated about 1,995 children from their parents and detained them between mid-April and May 31, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said on Sunday that the number "may well be higher".


On Friday, Trump hinted in a tweet that the policy is intended as political leverage to force Democratic legislators to agree to changes to immigration law containing elements they oppose, including the construction of a wall on the US-Mexico border.

"The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda," Trump said on Twitter. "Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!"

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that she "very forcefully" objected to the implication that Trump sought to use immigrant children as a bargaining chip, even though the president himself suggested it. "I certainly don’t want anybody to use these kids as leverage," she said.

Other Trump allies are unapologetic. "It’s zero tolerance. I don’t think you have to justify it," former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said on Sunday on ABC’s This Week.

Religious leaders

US religious leaders have castigated the policy. Rev Franklin Graham, who’s typically a Trump ally, told Christian Broadcasting Network that it’s "disgraceful, it’s terrible, to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit." Daniel DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that "separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."

As the controversy rages, the first lady, who rarely weighs in on policy matters, issued a statement on Sunday though spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham: "Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."

Democrats have refused to consent to the border wall or restrictions to legal immigration Trump has demanded, and instead hope to block family separations with standalone legislation.

Realising the emotional resonance of the issue, House Republican leaders inserted a provision to block the Department of Homeland Security from separating parents and children in an immigration bill expected to be debated this week.

The legislation would not explicitly forbid the incarceration of children alongside their parents.

The fate of that bill is unclear, as the White House has sent mixed messages on whether Trump supports it or an alternative, more conservative immigration measure also expected to receive a vote.

Many Democrats have shied away from overly politicising the situation at the border. Former president Barack Obama also grappled with the plight of undocumented child immigrants and detained them when they were unaccompanied by caregivers.

In a rare criticism of the US, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said on Monday that migrant children should not be separated from their families at the US-Mexico border. "As a matter of principle, the secretary-general believes that refugees and migrants should always be treated with respect and dignity, and in accordance with existing international law,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. “Children must not be traumatized by being separated from their parents. Family unity must be preserved.”

UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also spoke out against the US administration’s policy of separating migrant families, saying “the thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” About 2,000 children have been separated from their parents or adult guardians over six weeks, according to US authorities.

Bloomberg, with AFP