WASHINGTON — The day after President Donald Trump claimed he had acted to keep migrant families together, the fate of more than 2,300 children held in custody separate from their parents and that of future asylum-seeking families remained uncertain Thursday.
The continued confusion ensured the president’s self-inflicted political and humanitarian crisis would continue as government officials, attorneys and immigration advocates scrambled to understand and implement the revised policy.
Numerous officials throughout the administration declined to answer questions about how, when or whether family reunifications would take place. Not only was the public being left in the dark, but Senate aides complained that they were failing to get answers on behalf of lawmakers charged with overseeing the Department of Health and Human Services, a problem that has persisted since the separation crisis began.
For the third consecutive day, the White House did not schedule the usual daily press briefing.
First lady Melania Trump, who privately urged the president to reverse his controversial family separation policy, made a surprise visit to the a detention center in McAllen, Texas, meeting with officials and herself seeking answers about the children.
“I’m here to learn about your facility,” she said during a conversation with officials inside the shelter. “I’m also here to ask you how I can help to reunite these children with their families as quickly as possible.”
But the administration continued to offer contradictory information on how that might happen.
The first lady’s visit, which was kept a secret until her arrival at the facility, offered a surprising twist and a new media image for an administration responding to a continuing crisis. But her appearance did little to clear up the confusion about the fate of the 2,342 migrant children already separated from their parents and scattered across 17 states.
“This is all smoke and mirrors from the administration,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, the executive director of Voto Latino, which is organizing a protest rally in Tornillo, Texas, where the government’s first child detention center is based.
“We will not stop until these children are reunited with their families.”
The high-profile visit also underscored the administration’s continued concern about widespread public outrage over family separation, driven by saturation media coverage and images of children alone inside detention centers.
“The hard part for them is how do you logistically do this so it doesn’t turn into a Katrina problem where we have four months of stories similar to those about people being left in the Superdome,” said one Trump ally in close contact with the administration, referring to the aftermath of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 and which politically damaged President George W. Bush’s administration.
The president, as he has throughout the controversy, sought again Thursday to place the blame on his political opposition.
As he spoke for more than half an hour in the Cabinet Room, Trump attacked Democrats for not supporting Republican immigration proposals, claiming that the minority party was “causing tremendous damage and destruction and lives.”
But the president, himself, made the passage of new immigration legislation more difficult earlier in the day, firing off a tweet that questioned why Republicans in the House were even bothering to seek a legislative solution, asking, “what is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills” when they’re unlikely to pass in the Senate.
That remark complicated an already difficult legislative task for House Republican leaders, who have been trying to round up enough Republican votes to pass an immigration bill in their chamber. After Trump’s tweet, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., held a news conference in which he all but conceded that the effort to pass a bill in the House likely would fail.
The legislative maneuverings, however, were largely overshadowed by questions about when or if families would be reunified.
Even with the best of intentions, reuniting children who have been placed in detention overseen by a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services with parents being held by the U.S. marshals service is a challenge, given the web of competing bureaucracies and the unusual nature of the Trump administration’s separation policy.
“Those systems are not linked,” said Megan McKenna, spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense, a legal aid group that assists immigrant children. “So it’s kind of an ad hoc process.”
McKenna said her group depends on individual clues to reunite families, including the location where the family crossed the border and the level of offense with which a parent is charged. In some cases, she said, children have remained in custody even after parents were deported, creating an additional challenge.
Administration officials say that under the order that Trump issued Wednesday, families that cross the border illegally will now be housed together, potentially at military bases.
How many such families will need to be housed was uncertain. Trump promised that his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward all who cross the border illegally would continue. And on Thursday, a Justice Department spokesperson denied a report that officials were temporarily halting the prosecutions of parents who cross the border illegally with children, a major facet of the “zero tolerance” policy.
“Not accurate, on the record,” said the spokesperson, Sarah Isgur-Flores.
Determining whether fewer prosecutions are actually taking place may be difficult given that such prosecution decisions have always been subject to government discretion.
Democrats continued to criticize the entire effort as excessively punitive and badly managed.
“Little by little, actions like this are turning us into a different country,” said Julian Castro, who served as Health and Human Services secretary during the Obama administration. “Despite the president’s political theater in the executive order he signed, nothing has been done to reunite the 2,342 children who are currently separated from their parents.
“As the former head of a government agency, I know there are a ton of unanswered questions about how the executive order that was handed down yesterday, even if it applies only to future separations, how that’s going to work.”
The president’s order could be temporary — on Thursday, Trump himself described it as “limited.”
The order directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek an exemption to the Flores settlement, which limits how long children can be held in detention centers. Administration officials have not been able to say what will happen if they do not succeed in court.