US President Donald Trump, facing a blast of criticism for the detention of children separated from their immigrant parents at the US-Mexico border, showed no signs of compromise and opted to blame his Democratic Party opponents for “obstructing” legislation that would reform the country’s immigration policy this week.
The family separations, documented by online videos of youngsters detained in cages, put Trump back at the centre of a furor over immigration, an issue he inflamed when he was a presidential elections candidate and that he has carried over into his administration.
He was scheduled to travel to Capitol Hill late on Tuesday to meet Republican Party lawmakers, as Democrats hurled charges of the “barbaric” treatment of the children.
Even some of his fellow Republicans announced they would move tentatively towards legislation that would curb, if not entirely halt, the practice of separating families.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy provides for the arrest of all adults caught trying to enter the United States illegally, including those seeking asylum. While parents are held in jail, their children are sent to separate detention facilities, some in remote locations.
Trump and administration officials have said the policy, not practised by the two previous presidents, is needed to secure the border and deter illegal immigration. But Democrats and some Republicans have criticised the administration for dividing nearly 2,000 children from their parents between mid-April and the end of May.
Online videos showed immigrant children being held in concrete-floored cages at detention centres. An audio recording said to capture the sounds of immigrant children crying in a detention facility and asking for “mami” and “papi” was circulating online, added to the furor over the practice.
Even first lady Melania Trump and former first lady Laura Bush have joined the chorus of criticism of the practice of separating children from their parents.
A spokeswoman for Melania Trump told CNN on Sunday that the first lady “hates to see children separated from their families” and hopes lawmakers from both parties can agree on immigration reform, in a rare public statement on a policy issue from the president’s wife.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Laura Bush, wife of the previous Republican president George W Bush, said she lived in a border state and appreciated the need to enforce and protect US borders.
“But this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” Bush wrote, adding that the images were “eerily reminiscent of the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history.”
Democrats have accused the president of effectively turning the children into political hostages to secure stricter immigration measures, such as funding for a US-Mexico border wall.
“Stop lying to the American people. This is your policy,” Democratic representative Hakeem Jeffries said in New Jersey.
A grand bargain in Congress to resolve deep divisions over the immigration law appeared unlikely, with Trump focused on winning funding for a wall he has long wanted to build along America’s southern border with Mexico.
Democrats in the House of Representatives will introduce legislation this week aimed at stopping separations, mirroring a similar Senate bill sponsored by Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
But neither bill has much hope of securing enough support in the Republican-controlled Congress, let alone surviving Trump’s veto.
Trump and House Republicans in their meeting late on Tuesday were expected to discuss two bills scheduled for voting today. Both were drafted with no input from Democrats. Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House.
One bill would limit, but not fully prohibit, family separations, fund Trump’s wall and give legal protections to young immigrants, known as “dreamers,” who were brought to the country illegally as children. 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 the 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 up handling of asylum applications.
However, Trump seemed undeterred on Monday, and claimed he wanted to make sure America was “a safe country.” He even used the crisis at home to lash out at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying he could not allow the United States to face problems such as those currently facing Europe over immigration.
Trump claimed in a tweet that Germans “are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture.”
He added that “we don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us.”
In his remarks on Monday, Trump stuck to his guns. “I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault. They’re obstructing. They’re really obstructionists. And they are obstructing,” he said.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be. If you look at what’s happening in Europe, if you look at what’s happening in other places, we can’t allow that to happen to the United States – not on my watch,” he added.
Trump only briefly commented on the drama related to separating children from their parents, blaming that on “horrible laws.” He said that “we could have an immigration bill. We could have – child separation – we’re stuck with these horrible laws. They’re horrible laws. What’s happening is so sad – is so sad. And it can be taken care of quickly, beautifully, and we’ll have safety.”
Trump also argued that he wanted to be selective over who could move to the United States, excluding “murderers and thieves.”
He said in his remarks on Monday that “a country without borders is not a country at all. We need borders. We need security. We need safety. We have to take care of our people. You take a look at the death and destruction that’s been caused by people coming into this country, without going through a process. We want a merit-based immigration system so that Boeing and Lockheed… can hire people that came on merit, not based on a lottery, or not people that snuck across the border. And they could be murderers and thieves and so much else.”
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.
When asked about heartbreaking audio recordings in which children are heard crying and calling for their parents, department of homeland security Kirstjen Nielsen stood by the conditions and standard of care in the facilities.
However, Nielsen seemed to lack sensitivity to the anger and empathy that have been triggered over a weekend by heart-rending news coverage, and that prompted Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to describe the separations as “government-sanctioned child abuse.”
Nielsen said conditions in facilities where separated children were kept are good. “We give them meals, and we give them education, and we give them medical care. There are videos. There are TVs,” Nielsen said.
Still, Trump may believe he has political grounds to stick to his guns.
A CNN poll on Monday showed that while the US president had a 59 per cent disapproval rating on immigration, 58 per cent of Republicans favoured the new policy towards undocumented immigrant families on the southern border. Eighty one per cent of respondents who approve of Trump also give his immigration policy high marks.
Given that this is a presidency almost exclusively rooted in efforts to secure Trump’s base, it might not be surprising if the president looks at such numbers and decides his own political interests warrant no course correction.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No climb down by Trump