WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, facing intense criticism for the detention of children separated from their immigrant parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, planned to meet with Republican lawmakers on Tuesday before votes on immigration legislation.
The family separations, highlighted by videos of youngsters detained in cages and an audiotape of wailing children, have sparked an outcry at home and strong condemnation abroad.
Trump, who has made a tough stance on immigration a centerpiece of his presidency, has steadfastly defended his administration’s actions. He has cast blame for the separations on Democrats, although his fellow Republicans control both chambers in Congress and the current policy of strict adherence to the law was implemented by his own Republican administration.
The president has sought to link an end to the family separations to passage of a wider bill on immigration matters, prompting Democrats to accuse him of using children as hostages.
The separations, which have been blasted by Democrats, some Republicans, medical professionals, rights activists and clergy, began after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April in which all those apprehended entering the United States illegally would be criminally charged.
Parents who are referred by border agents for prosecution are held in federal jails, while their children are moved into detention facilities under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents between mid-April and the end of May.
The attorneys general of 21 states called on Sessions in a letter on Tuesday to stop endangering children by separating them from their families.
“Put simply, the deliberate separation of children and their parents who seek lawful asylum in America is wrong. This practice is contrary to American values and must be stopped,” said Hector Balderas, the attorney general in the border state of New Mexico.
In the latest condemnation from abroad, the U.N. refugee agency has told Washington it is very concerned over the family separations, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told Reuters.
France’s government spokesman called imaged of the children “shocking” and of the policy that Europe and the United States did not share the same values.
“We do not share the same model of civilization, clearly we don’t share certain values,” Benjamin Griveaux told France 2 television.
Online videos showed immigrant children being held in concrete-floored cages at detention centers.
In an audio recording obtained by ProPublica investigative news site, which was widely circulated online and in U.S. media, children said to be in a detention facility could be heard crying and calling for their parents. Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the tape.
The uproar over the family separations appeared unlikely to facilitate a big immigration overhaul in Congress that would finally resolve deep national divisions over the issue.
Trump is focused on winning congressional funding for a wall he has long wanted to build along America’s southern border with Mexico, and Democrats have long said they will resist that.
In their evening meeting, Trump and House Republicans were expected to discuss two bills scheduled for votes on Thursday. Both were drafted with no input from Democrats.
One bill would limit, but not fully prohibit family separations, fund Trump’s wall and give legal protections to young adults, known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the country as children when their parents entered the country illegally. Details were still in flux.
The bill faces strong headwinds as it is opposed by Democrats, who object to another provision that would cut legal immigration levels, and conservative Republicans who are backing a rival bill that takes a harder line on immigration.
In the Senate, Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who ran unsuccessfully against Trump in 2016 for their party’s presidential nomination, said he would introduce legislation this week to halt family separations.
Cruz said his bill would build temporary shelters where immigrant families could stay together in cases where there was no threat to the children’s safety, double the number of federal immigration judges and speed handling of asylum applications.
On Monday, the United Methodist church said it was bringing church law charges against Sessions, one of its members, of child abuse, immorality and racial discrimination. The church said the move was approved by 600 of its clergy and laity.
Sessions, long a hardliner on immigration, has come under particularly intense criticism after he cited a biblical passage regarding adherence to the law as justification for the family separations.
Border crossings briefly dropped after Trump took office in January 2017, but have since risen to levels seen during the administration of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. Almost 52,000 people were caught trying to cross the southern border illegally in May, according to government figures.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Makini Brice and Lisa Lambert in Washington, Reade Levinson in New York, Richard Lough in Paris and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Peter Cooney and Frances Kerry