By Lisa Lambert and Makini Brice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he would not allow the United States to become a “migrant camp” as his administration faced a barrage of criticism for separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democrats and some in Trump’s own Republican Party have admonished the administration for dividing nearly 2,000 children from their parents between mid-April and the end of May. Medical professionals have said the practice could cause lasting trauma to children.
The family separations are the result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that arrests all adults who are caught trying to enter the United States illegally, including those seeking asylum.
While parents are held in jail, their children are sent to separate detention facilities. Video footage released by the government showed migrant children held in wire cages, sitting on concrete floors.
Trump, whose hardline stance on immigration is a major policy of his presidency, responded sharply to critics on Monday.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be. You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places – we can’t allow that to happen to the United States, not on my watch,” Trump said at the White House while announcing an unrelated policy.
Trump has sought to use the widespread outrage over the family separations to push through other immigration priorities that have stalled in Congress, such as funding for his long-promised wall along the Mexican border.
He has blamed Democrats for the impasse, even though his fellow Republicans control both chambers in Congress. Democrats have accused the president of using children as hostages in the dispute.
“This was done by the president, not Democrats. He can fix it tomorrow if he wants to, and if he doesn’t want to, he should own up to the fact that he’s doing it,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a prepared statement.
Earlier, Trump said on Twitter that people should be wary of what he called the cultural change caused by migrants in Europe. He cited immigration for causing political instability in Germany and said inaccurately that crime in Germany was “way up.”
Contrary to Trump’s assertion, the crime rate in Germany is at its lowest point in more than 30 years, according to figures reported by Germany’s internal ministry last month.
BORDER CROSSINGS RISE
Trump administration officials say the zero-tolerance policy, which was not practiced by the two previous administrations, is necessary to secure the border and deter illegal immigration, but they are facing a growing chorus of criticism from their Republican allies.
Border crossings briefly dropped after Trump took office with his hardline immigration platform in January 2017, but have since risen to levels seen during the administration of his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Almost 52,000 people were caught trying to cross the southern border illegally in May, according to government figures.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse called the policy “wicked,” while Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart called it “unacceptable.” Representative Will Hurd, a Republican who represents a Texas district along the border, said it was “insane” to think that family separation would be effective.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres weighed in, saying refugee and migrant “children must not be traumatized by being separated from their parents.” In Geneva, the top U.N. human rights official called on the Trump administration to halt its “unconscionable” policy of forcibly separating children from migrant parents.
Governors of Massachusetts, New York and Colorado said they would not send national guard troops to help with border enforcement because of the separation policy.
The debate drew in current and former presidential wives, who typically steer clear of divisive debates. Laura Bush and Michelle Obama condemned the practice, while Melania Trump released a statement on Sunday saying she “hates to see” children separated from their families.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the way migrant children are being treated.
“Don’t believe the press. They are very well taken care of,” she said at the National Sheriffs’ Association convention in New Orleans on Monday.
Trump was due to meet with Republicans in the House of Representatives on Tuesday as they prepared to vote on two immigration bills.
One would end the separation policy, fund the border wall and give legal protections to some immigrants who entered the country as children. Details were still in flux.
The bill faces strong headwinds as it is opposed by Democrats, who object to another provision that would cut legal immigration levels, and conservative Republicans who are backing a rival bill that takes a harder line on immigration.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Nathan Frandino and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)