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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

Trump doubles down on migrant policy amid global criticism

UN human rights chief criticises separation of families as bipartisan protests and anger erupt in Washington

US President Donald Trump's executive order to detain children crossing the southern US border and separating families has prompted protests in the US, such as outside City Hall in Los Angeles on June 7, 2018. Patrick T. Fallon / Reuters
US President Donald Trump's executive order to detain children crossing the southern US border and separating families has prompted protests in the US, such as outside City Hall in Los Angeles on June 7, 2018. Patrick T. Fallon / Reuters

Donald Trump dug in against rising domestic and international criticism on Monday over the forced separation of migrant children from their parents at the United States-Mexico border, blaming Democrats for the practice and declaring that he would keep the US from becoming "a migrant camp".

Following bipartisan pressure from such figures as former first lady Laura Bush, who called the separation policy "cruel" and "immoral", and Republican Senator Susan Collins, the president has extended his support for the zero tolerance policy that has created what Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the 2016 election, has called "a moral and humanitarian crisis".

Speaking at an awards lunch in New York, Mrs Clinton described the treatment of families at the US-Mexico border as "horrific".

"Every human being with a sense of compassion and decency should be outraged," Mrs Clinton said, noting that she had warned during the campaign that Mr Trump's immigration stance would result in family separations.

"Now as we watch with broken hearts, that’s exactly what’s happening," Mrs Clinton added.

Meanwhile, the United Nations’ human rights chief also waded into the growing furore over border policies, demanding an immediate halt to the practice of separating children from migrant parents.

The intervention follows days of nationwide protests and growing unease in his own party, and splits even within Mr Trump’s own household, where Melania Trump has said she hates to see families divided.

There were fresh descriptions on Monday of how children as young as two are being separated from their parents in processing centres along the border with Mexico.

"The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable," said Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein as he opened a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The issue has taken on greater prominence after reporters and Congressmen were on Sunday allowed inside a giant warehouse in McAllen, Texas, where children and adults are being held in separate pens.

They described mattresses on the floor covered with aluminium foil blankets, while families queued for processing – descriptions that sparked comparisons with some of the darkest periods of 20th century history.

More than 1,000 people are being held inside the windowless warehouse where the lights stay on 24-hours a day.

But border agents prevented reporters from interviewing any of the detainees or taking photos inside the facility.

One photograph taken outside, which went viral, showed a 2-year-old girl screaming as her mother was detained at the border.

Stories emerged of parents being told their children were being taken for showers, only later to be informed they would not be reunited.

A 16-year-old had to teach other children how to change the nappy of one of the smallest girls, who turned out to be 4 years of age, according to Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

“She was so traumatised that she wasn't talking,” Ms Brane told the Associated Press. “She was just curled up in a little ball.”

The government says up to 2,000 minors were separated from their parents or guardians during a recent six-week period. Under US law, they are required to be moved on from the border service holding facilities to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services within three days.

The result is a growing political row, with Mr Trump and his closest advisers appearing increasingly isolated as they push for tougher immigration legislation.

For his part, Donald Trump on Monday blamed Democrats for failing to help fix US immigration policy and said emergency measures were essential to protect Americans from gang members entering the country.

“Why don’t the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws,” he asked on Twitter yesterday. “Where is the outcry for the killings and crime being caused by gangs and thugs, including MS-13, coming into our country illegally?”

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But the anger in the country has spilled into the White House. Mr Trump faces opposition even inside his own household.

Melania Trump, the first lady, issued a statement on Father’s Day making clear her concerns about dividing families.

“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,” her communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told news outlets.

“She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”

Although the White House has pointed the finger at the obstructionism of Democrats, the rate of separations accelerated after early May, when Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, announced that all migrants crossing illegally into the US from Mexico would be arrested.

Since children cannot legally be sent to facilities where adults are held, they are separated from their parents.

Laura Bush, the former first lady and wife of George W Bush, was among those to condemn the practice.

In an op-ed published by The Washington Post on Sunday, she compared what was happening to Japanese American internment camps of the Second World War.

“I live in a border state,” said Mrs Bush, who has generally kept her liberal instincts under wraps since marrying into such a high-profile Republican family. “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel.

“It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”

With mounting unease among Republicans, Trump loyalists leapt to defend the policy.

Stephen Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and the chief architect of its 'America First' policies, told ABC’s This Week: “I don’t think you have to justify it.

“We have a crisis on the southern border.”

Mr Trump was elected on a populist platform that promised to end illegal immigration from Mexico to protect US jobs.

The president is due to meet senior Republican figures on Tuesday to work out a legislative path forward, with votes expected on two competing bills this week.

Democrats fear Republicans will use the carrot of ending separations in order to force through funding for their proposed border wall.

Bill Clinton, the former US president, condemned any suggestion that a deal could be done.

“These children should not be a negotiating tool,” he wrote on Twitter. “And reuniting them with their families would reaffirm America’s belief in and support for all parents who love their children.”

Susan Collins, a Republican senator, said tougher border controls were needed but not at the expense of American values.