The US political battle over migrant children separated from parents has shifted to Congress, after Donald Trump signed an order ending the practice. The House of Representatives will vote on broader immigration bills which fund President Trump’s proposed border wall and reduce legal migration. But Democrats oppose them and it is uncertain that they will pass. Mr Trump reversed his policy after a public outcry at home and globally over the policy, widely seen as inhumane. The order calls for the families to be detained together while their cases are considered. But the fate of families already separated by the policy is not clear.
US immigration officials say 2,342 children were separated from 2,206 parents between 5 May and 9 June. Mr Trump has previously said it was up to Congress to resolve the issue, in combination with tougher immigration regulations. One of the House bills is a compromise between conservatives and moderates. It includes funding for a border wall, along with a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers immigrants brought illegally into the US as children. “This is a bill that has consensus. This is a bill that the president supports. It’s a bill that could become law,” said House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, quoted by the Associated Press.
The second, more conservative bill excludes the Dreamers clause. With no Democrat support for the bills, White House officials have been seeking to drum up support among Republicans, many of whom are wavering or openly opposed. Meanwhile the Senate is working on a narrower compromise bill focusing on the family separations. The president signed his executive order on Wednesday evening. “I did not like the sight of families being separated,” he said, but added the administration would continue its “zero tolerance policy” of criminally prosecuting anyone who crosses the border illegally.
He said he had been swayed by images of children who have been taken from parents while they were jailed and prosecuted for illegal border-crossing. Vice-President Mike Pence and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has emerged as the face of the White House policy, were both present. Media reports say Ms Nielsen was also confronted by protesters angry about the separations at a Mexican restaurant in Washington on Wednesday evening. In April, the US attorney general announced a “zero-tolerance” policy to criminally charge and jail undocumented border crossers.
As children cannot legally be jailed with their parents, they are kept in separate facilities. Pictures of dozens of children sleeping in fenced enclosures and audio of them crying emerged in recent days, provoking the widespread criticism. Under previous US administrations, immigrants caught crossing the border for the first time tended to be issued with court summonses and released. Six American airlines have told the Trump administration not to use their aircraft to transport child migrants who have been separated from their parents. Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and United airlines all said the policy contravened their values.