U.S. President Donald Trump claimed Thursday that migrant children separated from their parents at the United States-Mexico border are “so well taken care of” while refusing to answer how those families would be reunited.
Court-appointed lawyers said this week that they are still unable to find the parents of 545 children since the Trump administration ended the “zero tolerance” policy in 2018.
A federal judge had ordered the government to find the parents of thousands of children separated under the policy.
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Asked by moderator Kristen Welker at the final debate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden how those remaining children will be reunited with their parents, Trump claimed the children were being brought over the border by “coyotes” and “lots of bad people” into the U.S., before touting his administration’s immigration record.
He then blamed the Obama administration for building the detention centres and “cages” that children have been kept in during and after the family separation policy.
“(The children) are so well taken care of, they’re in facilities that are so clean,” he said.
“But some of them haven’t been reunited with their parents,” Welker responded.
“One question: who built the cages?” Trump then said, ignoring Welker and pointing to Biden.
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Biden called out Trump’s claims, emphasizing that parents brought their children across the border before criticizing the policy as a whole.
“It makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation,” he said.
More than 2,700 children had been separated from their parents by June 2018, when U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered an end to the practice under a “zero-tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute every adult who entered the country illegally from Mexico.
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The administration sparked an international outcry when parents couldn’t find their children.
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While those families were reunited under court order, authorities later discovered that up to 1,556 children were separated under the policy going back to the summer of 2017, including hundreds during an initial run at family separation in El Paso, Texas, from July to November 2017 that was not publicly disclosed at the time.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued over the practice, said a court-appointed steering committee located parents of 485 children, up 47 from August. That leaves 545 still unaccounted for among the 1,030 children for whom the steering committee had telephone numbers from U.S. authorities.
On Thursday, Sabraw urged the Trump administration to do more to reunite those remaining families. He refrained from issuing an order during a hearing in San Diego and instead asked Justice Department attorneys to explore ways the administration can make it easier to find the parents.
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Welker pointed out that the Obama administration failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform while Biden was vice president, which was a key promise of their eight years in office. That administration also oversaw record deportations of illegal immigrants.
Biden said he would take immigration actions within the first 100 days of his administration if he were to be elected, including securing the survival of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or “Dreamers” program, which the Trump administration has moved to dismantle.
While Trump criticized Biden for not doing enough during his time as vice president, Biden quickly turned to Trump’s own record.
“This is the first president in the history of the United States of America who’s said anyone seeking asylum has to do it in another country. That’s never happened before in America,” Biden said.
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Trump defended what he called the end of so-called “catch and release” policies that sees immigrants released from detention with an agreement to appear at a later court hearing. He pushed back on Biden’s claims that those migrants attend their hearings.
“When you say they come back, they don’t come back Joe, they never come back,” Trump said. “Only the really — I hate to say this — but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.”
Biden pointed directly to the camera and said, “What he’s telling you is simply not true. Check it out.”
— With files from the Associated Press
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