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Donald Trump

Donald Trump says he ‘has to take children away’ from migrants amid global outcry over his immigration policy

Republican and Democrat governors have recalled border troops; politicians from both sides have denounced the policy; and Mexico and Canada have weighed in

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 4:38am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 4:40am

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has led to thousands of migrant families being split, saying it is the only effective way to fight illegal immigration.

“I don’t want children taken away from parents,” he told a gathering of small business owners, before adding: “When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away. We don’t have to prosecute them, but then we are not prosecuting them for coming in illegally. That’s not good.”

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Trump made the remarks as outcry over his policies grew both in the US and internationally, with Canada and Mexico among the countries blasting the White House for the policy.

US officials say more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents or guardians since early May, when the administration announced its push to arrest and charge anyone illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, regardless of whether they were seeking asylum.

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

A chorus of critics – rights groups, Christian evangelicals, former US first ladies and some within the president’s own Republican Party – are demanding an immediate end to the family separations. But a defiant Trump has vowed America will not become a “migrant camp.”

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“We don’t want people pouring into our country,” he told Tuesday’s gathering. “We want ultimately a merit-based system where people come in based on merit.”

In Mexico’s first public response to the policy, Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray called the separations “cruel and inhumane” and said that Mexico has lodged complaints at the highest levels of the Trump administration, including with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as well as with the United Nations.

“The government of Mexico cannot remain indifferent to a situation of this nature,” Videgaray said. “I want to express, in the name of the government and people of Mexico, our most categorical and energetic condemnation of this cruel and inhumane policy,” Videgaray said at a news conference here on Tuesday, flanked by several top diplomats.

He said that Mexican consulates were trying to reunite children with their families, and that fewer than 25 of the roughly 2,000 children separated by the Trump administration – or about 1 per cent – are Mexican, with most coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Most of these Mexican children have already been deported, he said.

Videgaray highlighted the “particularly painful case” of a 10-year-old Mexican girl with Down syndrome who was taken away from her mother last week and is in a shelter in McAllen, Texas.

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The father, he said, is a US resident in Brownsville, Texas, and he urged American authorities to release the girl to her father as soon as possible.

Canada also responded, with Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen telling parliament, “I think all Canadians are troubled by images coming out of the United States. The lives of children are very, very precious and their security and their well-being has to be foremost in our minds.”

He added that Ottawa is “monitoring the United States domestic asylum policy to make sure that any changes in their asylum system continue to meet their designation as a safe third country”.

Trump on Tuesday attempted to justify the policy by saying it was needed to combat smugglers who he said “game the system”, and added that the media were helping human traffickers.

“Those who apply for asylum legally at ports of entry are not prosecuted. The fake news media back there doesn’t talk about that,” he claimed. “They are fake. They are helping these smugglers and these traffickers like nobody would believe.”

Previously, Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who implemented the policy – had attempted to justify the separations by saying that “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

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But according to a Quinnipiac University national poll, their remarks have done little to sway American voters, two thirds of whom disagree with the policy.

“When does public opinion become a demand that politicians just can’t ignore?” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the poll. “Two-thirds of American voters oppose the family separation policy at our borders. Neither quotes from the Bible nor get-tough talk can soften the images of crying children nor reverse the pain so many Americans feel.”

And the outcry from the American public has been matched by anger from both Republican and Democrat politicians.

Fred Upton, a Republican congressman from Michigan, urged an immediate end to the “ugly and inhumane practice”, adding: “It’s never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process.”

Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, said: “The time is now for the White House to end the cruel, tragic separations of families.”

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic, tweeted: “The administration’s current family separation policy is an affront to the decency of the American people, and contrary to principles and values upon which our nation was founded. The administration has the power to rescind this policy. It should do so now.”

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And a pair of Florida Democrat lawmakers, Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, attempted to visit South Florida’s the contractor-run Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children after hearing that it had been receiving children illegally.

But despite Wasserman Schultz being told they would be allowed in, they were shut out, with Nelson being told by Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan told him it would take two weeks for them to get access.

Nelson called that a “cover-up for the president”, adding: “It is an affront as the senior senator of this state that an agency head would tell me that I do not have entrance into a federally funded facility where the lives and health of children are at stake.”

Meanwhile, the governors of five US states have refused to send National Guard troops to the border with Mexico amid the anger over the policy.

The Democratic governors of Colorado, New York and Virginia and the Republican governors of Maryland and Massachusetts all said they would not send members of their state’s National Guard units for border duty.

Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, said he will not send any National Guard resources to the border “until this policy of separating children from their families has been rescinded,” adding that he had recalled a four-man helicopter crew already stationed there.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he had ordered the recall of a helicopter and four soldiers from the state National Guard from the border state of Arizona.

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“When Virginia deployed these resources to the border, we expected that they would play a role in preventing criminals, drug runners and other threats to our security from crossing into the United States – not supporting a policy of arresting families and separating children from their parents,” Northam said.

And Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said the policy was “cruel and inhumane,” and a National Guard helicopter crew which had been scheduled to go to the border later this month would not be deployed.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and John Hickenlooper, the Democratic Governor of Colorado, also pulled out, with Hickenlooper calling the practice “cruel and un-American”.

Two top US business groups – the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable – also came out against the separations on Tuesday, with Tom Donohue, the long-time president of the chamber, wrote in a blog post: “This is not who we are and it must end now.”

Donohue slammed the administration for acting against what he described as a “core” American value of not punishing children for their parents’ crimes, and for using the separations “as leverage to gain other immigration policy changes from Congress.”

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The chamber is a major force in Republican Party politics, although it has often split with Republican lawmakers with its support of efforts to keep undocumented immigrants who arrived as children in the US. The group has previously broken with Trump over his stances on immigration and tariffs.

And the Business Roundtable, which represents top US chief executive officers, said the “practice is cruel and contrary to American values,” according to a statement from Cisco Systems Inc. Chief Executive Officer Chuck Robbins, who heads the group’s immigration committee.

Trump was headed later Tuesday to Congress to huddle with Republican lawmakers, many of whom are deeply uncomfortable with the separation policy.

The president has accused Democrats of provoking the crisis by blocking legislation to combat illegal immigration.

“We want to end the border crisis by finally giving us the legal authorities and the resources to detain and remove illegal immigrant families all together and bring them back to their country,” he said.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to consider two immigration bills.

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One is a hardline measure favoured by conservatives, and the other a compromise bill – which the White House has signalled has Trump’s support – that would end family separations, protect so-called Dreamer immigrants brought to the country as children, pay for boosted border security and curtail legal immigration.

Tuesday’s Republican huddle will be closely watched, in part to see whether any lawmakers directly confront the president.

Several House Republicans face tough re-election fights in November, and some may worry that public outrage over the family separations could hurt their chances.

Democrats say the crisis is of Trump’s own making, and accuse him of using children as pawns.