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US child migrants: First ladies speak out on Trump separation policy

Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody by US Border Patrol agents on 12 June 2018 near McAllen, Texas.Image copyright
Getty Images

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Adults who try to cross the US-Mexico border are automatically taken into custody

The former US First Lady Laura Bush has condemned a controversial policy that splits up families who illegally enter the country.

Writing in the Washington Post, she describes the separation of children from their parents as cruel, immoral and heart-breaking.

Her comments follow growing controversy over President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Earlier Melania Trump made a rare statement expressing concern.

Mrs Trump “hates to see children separated from their families”, her spokeswoman said.

She repeated her husband’s call for “both sides” to work on immigration reform as a solution. However, fact-checkers point out that the policy was introduced by Mr Trump’s attorney general and does not require congressional action to be stopped.

In a recent six-week period there were nearly 2,000 family separations following a crackdown on illegal border crossings.

Adults who try to cross the border outside of official entry points – many planning to seek asylum – are placed in custody and face criminal prosecution for illegal entry.

As a result, hundreds of children and babies are now being housed in detention centres, including warehouses and converted supermarkets, and kept away from their parents. Critics have condemned the action as unprecedented.

What’s been said?

Laura Bush, wife of the former Republican President George W Bush, launched an outspoken attack on the policy.

“This zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” she wrote in the Washington Post.

“Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert.”

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Reuters/Getty Images

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Laura Bush, left, and Melania Trump have both spoken out about the treatment of child migrants

“These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War Two, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history,” she added.

Earlier Mrs Trump said she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle [Republicans and Democrats in Congress] can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform”.

“We need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart,” her statement added.

Who is to blame?

Mr Trump has said a law “Democrats gave us” is responsible for the policy, but it is unclear which law he is referring to.

In a tweet on Saturday he urged Democrats to work with Republicans to create new legislation.

However, critics have pointed out that detaining children separately from their parents was a policy announced by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month.

The significant change, analysts say, is the justice department’s decision to criminally prosecute parents for a first-time border crossing offence. The children, however, are not charged with a crime, which means they cannot be jailed together.

‘Super detention centre’

Mat Morrison, BBC News, Brownsville, Texas

If not for the security stations, boarded up windows, and barricades with ‘KEEP OUT’ painted clearly in black, this would look like any other Walmart on any given Sunday.

But this is the Casa Padre detention centre in Brownsville, Texas, and the visitors today are not afternoon shoppers, but a handful of US lawmakers who came to see for themselves the impact of the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

“They call it zero-tolerance, but a better name for it is zero-humanity. And there is zero logic to this,” says Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who organised the visit.

“What we saw is this huge warehouse, it was a super centre for Walmart before, now it’s a super detention centre. It’s holding almost 1,500 kids inside there.”

“There are walls that have been constructed that go up near the ceiling, long corridors, because you need a lot of bedrooms, and they have some common space as well,” he said.

What’s happening now?

The recent child detentions have resulted in some shelters and foster homes reporting that they are running out of space.

Media captionMigrant boys detained in a former Walmart in Texas

On Sunday, Democratic members of Congress paid a “surprise Father’s Day visit” to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centre in New Jersey, demanding to see detainees separated from their children.

Meanwhile, officials announced plans to erect tent cities that will hold hundreds more children in the Texas desert where temperatures regularly reach 40C (105F).

Local lawmaker Jose Rodriguez described the plan as “totally inhumane” and “outrageous”, adding: “It should be condemned by anyone who has a moral sense of responsibility.”

Protesters marched to one such tent city in Tornillo, Texas, on Sunday where hundreds of children were being held separately from their parents.

They chanted “Families united!” and “Free our children now!”, reported NPR.

Media captionA lorry full of migrants was found in Texas

Is the policy working?

The number of families trying to enter the US overland without documentation is on the rise. Mr Sessions has recognised this, commenting last month that current immigration trends “must end”.

In the first two weeks of the new “zero-tolerance” approach, 658 minors – including many babies and toddlers – were separated from the adults that travelled with them, according to US border officials.

In many of the cases, the families have been reunited after the parent was released from detention. However, there are reports of people being kept apart for weeks and even months.

But it is not clear if this new tougher policy will stop the migrants from travelling.

This is because many are fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador, and staying put is often fraught with dangers.

US child migrants: First ladies speak out on Trump separation policy

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