Confusion, uncertainty at border after Trump's about-face

The U.S. government is wrestling with the fallout over President Donald Trump's move to stop separating families at the border, with no clear plan to reunite the more than 2,300 children already taken from their parents and Congress again failing to take action on immigration reform.

Lawmakers reject hard-right immigration bill

It's still not clear what will happen to more than 2,300 children separated from their parents and detained, even after U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

The U.S. government wrestled with the fallout Thursday over President Donald Trump's move to stop separating families at the border, with no clear plan to reunite the more than 2,300 children already taken from their parents and Congress again failing to take action on immigration reform.

In a day of confusion and conflicting reports, the Trump administration began drawing up plans to house as many as 20,000 migrants on U.S. military bases. But it was not immediately clear whether those beds would be for children or for entire families.

Meanwhile, the federal public defender's office for the region that covers cases from El Paso to San Antonio said Thursday the U.S. Attorney's Office would be dismissing cases in which parents were charged with illegally entering or re-entering the country and were subsequently separated from their children.

"Going forward, they will no longer bring criminal charges against a parent or parents entering the United States if they have their child with them," wrote Maureen Scott Franco, the federal public defender for the Western District of Texas, in an email shown to The Associated Press.

And in the Texas border city of McAllen, federal prosecutors unexpectedly did not pursue charges against 17 immigrants. A federal prosecutor said "there was no prosecution sought" in light of Trump's executive order ending the practice of separating families.

It was unclear whether that meant the Trump administration was dropping its months-old "zero tolerance" policy of prosecuting all adults caught trying to enter the country illegally.

The president did not answer the question directly but showed no sign of softening.

"We have to be very, very strong on the border. If we don't do it, you will be inundated with people and you really won't have a country," Trump said.

Officials from the Defence Department and Health and Human Services said the Pentagon has agreed to provide space on military bases to hold up to 20,000 people detained after illegally crossing the Mexican border.

Trump said he has invited Congress's top two Democrats — Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (pictured) — to the White House for immigration bargaining. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

It was unclear which bases would be used. But Health and Human Services has assessed four as prospective housing for children: Fort Bliss, Goodfellow Air Force Base and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, and Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.

The Justice Department asked a federal judge to change the rules regarding the detention of immigrant children, seeking permission to detain them for longer than the permitted 20 days in an effort to keep them together with their parents.

Meanwhile, the mayors of about 20 U.S. cities gathered at a holding facility for immigrant children in the border city of El Paso. They accused Trump of failing to address a crisis of his own making.

They called for the immediate reunification of immigrant children with their families.

"This is a humanitarian crisis," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said.

Immigration bill fails

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives appeared to be struggling to pass new immigration laws. A hard-right bill — which would have boosted border security and reduced visas while providing no clear path to citizenship for "Dreamers" who were brought to the country as children — was defeated when 41 Republicans crossed party lines to vote against it. The vote on a second bill, considered a compromise, was postponed as Republicans looked to rally support.

It provides $25 billion US for Trump's border wall, restrictions on legal immigration and language requiring the Homeland Security Department to keep migrant families together while they're being processed for illegal entry to the U.S.

Democrats oppose both measures as harsh.

"It is not a compromise," House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters. "It may be a compromise with the devil, but it is not a compromise with the Democrats."

Rejection of both would represent an embarrassment for Trump, who has supported them. As if the internal Republican turmoil was not enough, the party's political exposure on the issue has been intensified by heartbreaking images of migrant children separated from families and complicated by opaque statements by Trump.

Trump said Wednesday he was inviting Congress's top two Democrats, Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, to the White House for immigration bargaining. He called them "extremist open-border Democrats."

Monsignor Kevin Sullivan of the Archdiocese of New York, right, talks with Jensen Torres, 4, an immigrant from Honduras, at a facility in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday. Torres's family was processed and released by authorities on Tuesday and is waiting to travel to New York. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

And in a tweet that seemed to undermine House leaders' efforts to round up votes, he questioned the purpose of their legislation by suggesting it was doomed in the Senate anyway.

Hundreds sent to New York

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said he was concerned about whether parents can track down their kids.

"I am also deeply troubled to hear reports that the administration, in its haste to hold innocent children hostage in order to demand funds for a border wall, failed to plan appropriately to reunite these families following their separation," the Democrat said.

Kay Bellor, vice-president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, among the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S., said: "While children will no longer be ripped from the arms of their parents for the sole purpose of deterring immigration, they will go to jail with their parents. Jail is never an appropriate place for a child."

Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin looks through the fence toward the holding facility for immigrant children in Tornillo, Texas, on Thursday. Mayors from more than a dozen U.S. cities gathered near the facility to call for the immediate reunification of immigrant children with their families. (Andres Leighton/Associated Press)

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday went to a centre in Manhattan that is caring for 239 migrant children separated from their parents.

De Blasio told reporters the children at Harlem's Cayuga Centre included a nine-year-old Honduran boy sent to the centre some 3,200 kilometres by bus after being detained at the border. He said the youngest child there is nine months old.

The centre is operated under a federal contract that places unaccompanied migrant children in short-term foster care. De Blasio said staff members reported seeing about 350 children since the launch of the "zero tolerance" policy.

"It looked like the kids were being treated very well," the mayor said, but added several arrived with lice, bed bugs or chicken pox.

With files from Reuters