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Pentagon asked to prepare housing for up to 20,000 migrant children

Boys who appeared to be unaccompanied migrants arrived at La Guardia Airport from Texas this week.
Boys who appeared to be unaccompanied migrants arrived at La Guardia Airport from Texas this week.(DAVE SANDERS/NEW YORK TIMES)

WASHINGTON — The United States is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four American military bases, a Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday, as federal officials struggled to carry out President Trump’s order to keep immigrant families together after they are apprehended at the border.

The 20,000 beds at bases in Texas and Arkansas would house “unaccompanied alien children,” the Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Andrews, said, although other federal agencies provided conflicting explanations about how the shelters would be used or who would be housed there.

It was unclear whether the military housing would also house the parents of migrant children in families that have been detained, and officials at the White House, Defense Department, and Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday they could not provide details.

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The Pentagon announcement followed Trump’s executive order on Wednesday to keep families together after they illegally cross the Mexican border.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, questioned how such a plan to house 20,000 children could work.

“Is it even feasible?” Schumer asked.

Advocates for the migrants expressed concern about the prospect of vast settlements of families housed on military bases and described widespread uncertainty at the border.

“There’s conflicting instructions being given,” said Michele Brané, the director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It’s another example of this administration making these big, bold policy announcements with no plan for how they are going to implement them.”

“It’s adding to the chaos on the ground.”

Officials at the Pentagon have been assessing whether military bases can be used to house both families and children detained at the border, including at facilities in Texas and Arkansas, one Defense official said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was noncommittal, directing questions Wednesday to the Department of Homeland Security.

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When pressed, Mattis said, “We have housed refugees. We have housed people thrown out of their homes by earthquakes and hurricanes. We do whatever is in the best interest of the country.”

A day after a rare retreat on the issue of separating immigrant children from their parents, Trump lashed out angrily Thursday at what he called “extremist, open-border Democrats” and again falsely blamed them for the political crisis that continues to roil his administration.

Trump, choosing hard-edged remarks at a Cabinet meeting hours before the House was scheduled to vote on overhauling immigration laws, begged for Democratic support on the legislation even as he said Democratic lawmakers were causing “tremendous damage and destruction and lives.” And he repeated his false claim that Democrats forced family separations.

“They don’t care about the children. They don’t care about the injury. They don’t care about the problems,” Trump said, a scowl on his face and his arms crossed. “They don’t care about anything.”

The president’s stream-of-consciousness commentary also included an attack on Mexico for what he claimed was a failure to help stop illegal immigration into the United States. He said the trek through Mexico from Central America was like a walk through Central Park in New York City.

“Mexico is doing nothing for us except taking our money and giving us drugs,” he said.

The president’s remarks came amid continuing confusion and uncertainty after his abrupt signing Wednesday of an executive order to end the family separations, which have led to more than 2,300 children being held in makeshift detention facilities and other shelters.

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Government officials appear to have been given little time to prepare for the executive order, much the way Trump’s original ban on travel from mostly Muslim countries created chaos at airports a week after he took office.

An administration spokesman initially said Wednesday afternoon that the government would not reunite those 2,300 children, but was contradicted that night by a more senior official. And on Thursday, Justice Department officials scrambled to deny a report, apparently from officials in another agency, that prosecutions of immigrants traveling with families had been completely suspended.

Trump said he has directed his administration to “keep illegal immigrant families together and to reunite these previously separated groups.” But he offered no details about how the government intends to bring the families back together.

Massachusetts and more than a half-dozen other states say they plan to sue the Trump administration over the separation policy.

No children have been placed in Massachusetts as a result of the separation policy, and there are no federal Office of Refugee Resettlement Care Provider shelters located in the state, state officials said Thursday.

Late Wednesday in New York, immigration activists shuttled from terminal to terminal at La Guardia Airport, after news spread on social media that children who had been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border might be arriving on flights.

The protesters held signs at security gates that read “Bienvenidos a New York,” and “Te amamos.”

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Outside Terminal B — not long after a group of seven boys was spotted getting off American Airlines Flight 2716, wearing dark hoodies and carrying government-labeled belongings — a circle of about 200 protesters gathered along the taxi line to plan for how they might lend support to other children getting off planes.

Separately, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered state officials to investigate claims made by immigrant teens of severe physical abuse at a juvenile detention facility.

Youths as young as 14 say they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center.

The center’s lawyers deny all abuse allegations.

Melania Trump, the first lady, traveled Thursday to a facility in McAllen, Texas, that is holding 55 children who have been separated from their parents.

“How long are you here? Where are you from?” asked Melania Trump, who traveled with Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary. As she left she said, “Be kind and nice to each other, OK? Nice to meet you.”