First lady Melania Trump made a surprise visit Thursday to a shelter for illegal immigrant children in Texas amid the furor over President Trump’s rescinded family separation policy, expressing her desire to see the children reunited with their parents “as quickly as possible.”
Mrs. Trump traveled to the facility in McAllen, Texas, to thank law enforcement officials and social service providers for their work during the burgeoning crisis and to put a compassionate face on a political dilemma for her husband’s administration.
“They are scared without their families,” Mrs. Trump said of the migrant children. “I want to thank you for your hard work, your compassion and your kindness you’re giving them in this difficult time. I’d also like to ask you how I can help to — these children, to reunite with their families, as quickly as possible.”
While she was visiting, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to rewrite the court agreement that Republicans say created the catch-and-release policy leading to the family separation crisis at the border.
The move is critical to Mr. Trump’s executive order trying to stop family separations.
Government officials say a 2015 ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, the so-called Flores settlement, created the catch-and-release practice that Mr. Trump was trying to head off with his zero-tolerance border prosecutions policy.
Now they have asked Judge Gee to revise the agreement, saying the “crisis” of families streaming toward the U.S. border has grown out of control and the government needs new tools to stop it.
“This entire journey and ultimate crossing puts children and families at risk, and violates criminal laws enacted by Congress to protect the border. Those illegal crossings must stop,” the Justice Department said in its filing.
Mr. Trump signed an executive order Wednesday halting the practice, which had resulted in the separation of more than 2,300 children from their families. The administration’s zero-tolerance policy on illegal migrants remains in place, but the president’s order says families will be kept together in detention.
Among the remaining questions are what happens to children already separated from their parents and where the government will house all the newly detained migrants in an overburdened system.
The president said Thursday that his order directs government agencies “to reunite these previously separated groups,” but the administration did not give any answers about how or when that will happen.
The first lady traveled to Texas — her first trip outside Washington since undergoing kidney surgery last month — to get her own answers about the treatment of migrant children.
While in McAllen, she asked officials how often the children were allowed to communicate with their families (twice a week) and how long children usually stayed at the facilities (an average of 42 to 45 days).
Mrs. Trump also met with children ages 12 to 17 held at the Upbring New Hope Children’s Shelter, part of Lutheran Social Services.
“She wanted to see everything for herself. … She supports family reunification,” spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said. “She thinks that it’s important that children stay with their families. This was 100 percent her idea.”
The president, who didn’t send his wife on the mission, said at a Cabinet meeting that he approved of it nonetheless.
“The first lady is at the border because she didn’t like what she was seeing and I don’t like what I’ve been seeing,” Mr. Trump said.
The facility Mrs. Trump visited is a permanent shelter opened in 2014 that typically houses children who cross the border without a parent. A senior administration official said only six of the 60 children from Honduras and El Salvador housed at the shelter had been separated from their parents after crossing the border.
During the burgeoning controversy over the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, Mrs. Trump said last weekend that she wanted a policy with “heart” and wanted both parties to work toward a solution for secure borders.
The trip was planned before Mr. Trump signed his executive order backing off a policy of separating children from their families after they cross the border illegally.
“She wants to see what’s happening for herself, and she wants to lend her support — executive order or not,” Ms. Grisham said. “The executive order certainly is helping pave the way a little bit, but there’s still a lot to be done.”
The administration’s legal request to keep families together in detention longer than 20 days will be an uphill legal battle.
Analysts say Judge Gee helped precipitate the immigration crisis with the 2015 ruling, which expanded the original 1997 Flores agreement that lays out standards for treatment of illegal immigrant children.
The 1997 agreement governed children who showed up at the border without parents. But Judge Gee ruled in 2015 that it also covered children who come with families. She laid out strict conditions for how the children should be treated and set a general limit of 20 days for detaining children in Homeland Security facilities.
Because children should generally be released to their parents, the 20-day limit means the parents are usually released as well.
That 20-day limit created what government authorities call the family “loophole” — illegal immigrants figured out that if they showed up at the border with children, they could gain more relaxed treatment than if they showed up alone.
The Obama administration, which argued the 2015 case, warned Judge Gee and later the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that her ruling would spark a new surge of illegal immigration and lead to the abduction of children in Mexico by adults trying to portray themselves as families.
Both eventualities have come to pass.
Fewer than 40,000 people traveling as families were nabbed at the border in 2015. This year, the government is on pace for nearly 90,000.
Hundreds of children have had to be taken away from adults who fraudulently claimed they were parents.
“Under current law and legal rulings, including this court’s, it is not possible for the U.S. government to detain families together during the pendency of their immigration proceedings. It cannot be done,” the Trump administration told Judge Gee. “One reason those families ‘decide to make the dangerous journey to illegally enter the United States is that they expect to be released from custody.'”
Peter Schey, a lawyer who represents the children in the Flores settlement, said it was “factually and legally false and dishonest” to blame the court rulings for the family separations that have occurred under Mr. Trump.
“This entire episode has been a disaster for the well-being and safety of thousands of innocent children and must come to an immediate end with remedial steps being taken to undo the extreme harm caused by the mass separation of children from their parents,” he said.
Even under Flores, he said, children can be detained with their parents as long as the conditions are humane and the child isn’t in a jail-like secure setting.
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