Homeland Security officials considered arresting thousands of migrant families who had final deportation orders and removing them from the U.S. in a flashy show of force, but the idea was tabled as the Trump administration grappled with straining resources and a growing number of Central Americans crossing the border.
Two Homeland Security officials and two other people familiar with the proposal described it to The Associated Press. They were not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
The idea was to arrest parents and children in 10 cities with large populations of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, specifically New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, they said, without naming others.
The proposal, first reported by The Washington Post, was meant to send a message and possibly deter others from coming across the border, they said.
But then-Immigrations and Customs Enforcement head Ron Vitiello and then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen put the proposal aside over concerns about diverting resources from the border, a lack of detention space and the possibility of renewed public outrage over treatment of families.
The Trump administration separated children from parents at the southern border last summer, a move that prompted mass outrage and criticism that the U.S. was abandoning its humanitarian role and harming children. Immigration experts say the separations, which were halted last June, did little to stop migrant crossings and, in fact, may have prompted more people to come.
The number of border crossings has risen dramatically in the past few months to more than 100,000 per month. More than half are families who cannot be easily sent back to their home countries. Border officials say they are out of resources and manpower and can’t keep up.
President Donald Trump has railed against the growing numbers and is furious that he has been unable to stem the flow of migrants despite his campaign promise to clamp down on immigration. The White House recently asked Congress for $4.5 billion in supplemental funding, mostly for humanitarian aid and shelter space for migrant children. ICE planes have been used over the past few days to fly migrants to less-crowded locations along the border for processing.
The tabled plan — it remains under consideration — included fast-tracking immigration cases to allow judges to order deportations for those who didn’t show up for hearings. It also prioritized the newest cases in order to deport people faster.
A senior administration official said enforcing the judicial orders to remove nearly 1 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally remains a top priority. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
Vitiello’s nomination to lead the immigration agency was pulled by the White House in a move last month that caught lawmakers and even the most senior Homeland Security officials off guard. Nielsen resigned just a few days later.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
The Trump administration is calling for the expanded use of family detention for immigrant parents and children who are stopped along the U.S.-Mexico border, a move decried by advocates as a cruel and ineffective attempt to deter families from coming to the United States.
Immigration authorities on Friday issued a notice that they may seek up to 15,000 beds to detain families. The Justice Department has also asked a federal court in California to allow children to be detained longer and in facilities that don’t require state licensing while they await immigration court proceedings.
“The current situation is untenable,” August Flentje, special counsel to the assistant attorney general, wrote in court filings seeking to change a longstanding court settlement that governs the detention of immigrant children. The more constrained the Homeland Security Department is in detaining families together during immigration proceedings, “the more likely it is that families will attempt illegal border crossing.”
The proposed expansion comes days after a public outcry moved the administration to cease the practice of separating children from their migrant parents on the border. More than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents since Homeland Security announced a plan in April to prosecute all immigrants caught on the border.
In all, about 9,000 immigrants traveling in family groups have been caught on the border in each of the last three months, according to federal authorities.
Immigrant advocates contend detention is no place for children and insist there are other alternatives to ensure they and their parents attend immigration court hearings, such as ankle bracelets or community-based programs. The federal court ruled several years ago that children must be released as quickly as possible from family detention.
“It is definitely not a solution under any circumstances,” said Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services at the RAICES advocacy group in Texas. “At no point should a child be incarcerated, and children need to be with their parents.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement currently has three family detention facilities — a 100-bed center opened in Pennsylvania in 2001 and two much larger facilities opened in Texas in 2014. Only the Pennsylvania facility can house men, and all of the detainees at the Texas centers are women with children.
In Dilley, Texas, a facility was built on a remote site that was once an old oil workers’ encampment. It includes collections of cottages built around playgrounds. The other Texas center, in Karnes City, is ringed by 15-foot fences and has security cameras monitoring movements. It also offers bilingual children’s books in the library, classes, TVs and an artificial turf soccer field.
Inside the Karnes City center, there are five or six beds to a room typically shared by a couple of families. Cinderblock walls are painted pastel colors, said Govindaiah, who added that the facilities are run by private prison operators, not humanitarian organizations, as is the case with shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children.
Currently, most families spend up to a few weeks in the facilities and are released once they pass an initial asylum screening. They are then given a date to appear before an immigration judge in the cities where they are headed to see if they qualify to stay in the country legally or will face deportation.
Those who do not pass initial screenings can seek additional review in a video conference with a judge, a process that lasts about six weeks.
But that’s much shorter than the six months or a year many families were being held several years ago when the Obama administration began detaining mothers and children in a bid to stem a surge in arrivals on the border, Govindaiah said.
At the time, many were being held until their immigration cases — not just the initial screenings — were resolved.
Advocates then asked the federal court to enforce a decades-old settlement over the detention of immigrant children, and a judge ruled the children should be released as quickly as possible.
The settlement is seen by advocates as a way to ensure children are placed in age-appropriate facilities and for no longer than necessary. State licensing adds another layer of oversight.
“You will have children in facilities that are entirely inappropriate for children and are not meeting child welfare standards,” said Michelle Brane, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “They are trying to circumvent child welfare standards.”
Brane said there is a viable alternative: supervised release to communities around the country. The federal Family Case Management Program — terminated under the Trump administration — compiled a perfect record of attendance by migrants at court hearings, and a 99 percent appearance record at immigration check-ins, according to a 2017 report by the Homeland Security inspector general.
Just 2 percent of participants — 23 out of 954 — were reported as absconders.
In Friday’s notice, ICE said the family detention beds should be in state-licensed facilities and allow freedom of movement for detainees, and should preferably be located in states along the southwest border.
In addition to providing private showers and educational field trips for children, the centers should appear “child-friendly rather than penal in nature,” the agency said.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in McAllen, Texas, and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Some got sympathy and solace. Some got silence. One got a promise of cash.
Relatives of people who died in military service have recounted varied interactions with President Donald Trump in the difficult days and weeks after the deaths of their loved ones. Despite Trump’s boast that he reaches out personally to all families of the fallen, interviews with families members did not support his claim. Some never heard from him at all, and a few who did came away more upset.
The Associated Press tried to reach the families of all 43 people who have died in military service since Trump became president and made contact with about 20 families. More than half said they had not heard from Trump.
Several spoke of being comforted by Trump but at least one call went awry: Cowanda Jones-Johnson told the AP that Trump spoke disrespectfully of her fallen nephew, Sgt. La David Johnson, when he called family members Tuesday. Johnson was among four servicemen killed in Niger earlier this month.
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, who lost his Marine son Robert in Afghanistan, sharply rebuked a congresswoman who listened to the call with Johnson’s widow and lashed out at Trump after. Kelly said Trump expressed his condolences in that call “the best way that he could.”
Chris Baldridge of Zebulon, North Carolina, told The Washington Post that Trump promised him $25,000 of his own money when they spoke in the summer about the loss of his son, Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, killed in Afghanistan, but the check never came. The White House said Wednesday, after the report, that “the check has been sent.”
Others waited for calls that did not come.
In Maine, the brother of a Marine who was killed in the crash of an Osprey aircraft said the family got no call or letter from Trump.
Capt. Ben Cross of Bethel was one of three Marines killed in the crash in August off the coast of Australia. His older brother, Ryan Cross, who’s an Army veteran, said Trump portrays himself as a champion of the armed forces but it’s “all talk and no action.”
After Army Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter died in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan in August, his family was told to expect a call from Trump. But it didn’t happen. Hunter, 23, from Columbus, Indiana, died 32 days into his first deployment since joining the Army in 2014.
Mark Hunter, his father, said a military casualty officer informed the family that Trump would call and the family was let down when he didn’t.
“Disappointed that he at least didn’t call and thank me for my son and our ultimate sacrifice,” Hunter said. “That’s all I wanted to hear. He didn’t have to say nothing else. That’s all I wanted to hear. From him — not the vice president.”
The family spoke with Vice President Mike Pence, who grew up in the same southern Indiana city, at the ceremony honoring the return of the soldier’s remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. So did several other families who lost loved ones in uniform.
Calling every family member isn’t a presidential tradition. Trump’s recent predecessors have reached out to Gold Star families through letters, private meetings and invitations. For Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who saw far more war dead on their watch, individual phone calls would have been a time-consuming task. Still, Trump this week used his calls as evidence of his support for the military, suggesting he did more to honor the families than his predecessors did.
“I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” Trump said, then adding, “virtually everybody.” He said it’s his practice both to make phone calls and send letters.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated the claim Wednesday, saying the president “has made contact with all of the families that have been presented to him through the White House Military Office.” She did not say whether that contact necessarily meant a phone call, or only a letter, and she did not not address the specifics of why families of some war dead have received neither.
When someone is killed in action, a Pentagon officer notifies next of kin and sends information to the White House office that is confirmed and assembled, she said. “Once that process is completed, the president or other members of the administration can engage in contact,” she said.
That process appears to have broken down.
After Army Spc. Christopher Michael Harris, 25, of Jackson Springs, North Carolina, was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in August, the White House offered to set up a call but “it fell through” and no letter came from the president, either, said his widow, Brittany Harris.
Aaron Butler, a 27-year-old guardsman from Monticello, Utah, was killed Aug. 16 at a booby-trapped building in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. His mother, Laura Butler, and family spokesman Bill Boyle said Trump has not called or sent a letter. The family is not complaining. “The family is very careful that they do not want to be pulled into a partisan slugfest,” Boyle said.
Jodie Missildine’s 20-year-old stepson, Alex Missildine, was killed Oct. 1 when an IED exploded near his vehicle in Ninawa Province, Iraq. He had been in Iraq for less than a month.
Jodie Missildine said the family had received an outpouring of support from Washington since receiving news of Alex’s death. But when asked if Trump had been in contact, she demurred, saying, “We will not speak ill of a president who adores his troops.”
In his claims, Trump made no distinction between combat and noncombat deaths. Past practice suggests that those who die fighting are more likely than military-accident victims to prompt a president to reach out personally to the family.
After U.S. Army Specialist Isiah Booker died Jan. 7 in Jordan, apparently when operating heavy construction equipment, President Barack Obama did not call. Neither did Trump after he took office that month. Chereisa Booker, of Schertz, Texas, said Trump had taken office by the time a condolence letter was processed and she and her husband received the letter. They also asked for and got one from Obama. But no calls.
Booker said “not really” when asked if she wanted to hear from Trump. But Sheila Murphy did after her son, Army Spc. Etienne J. Murphy, 22, died May 26 after an armored vehicle he was riding in rolled over in Syria.
“Because it was noncombat, I feel like maybe he thought it was an accident, it doesn’t matter,” Sheila Murphy said of Trump. “But my son was in Syria.” She says she’s waited in vain for a letter, even after writing to Trump six weeks ago to tell him she was still deeply grieving.
Cynthia Kimball received a letter from the president, but no call, after her Navy son John Henry Hoagland III died in the collision between the USS John S. McCain and a merchant vessel in August. “They said we could order more copies of it if we wanted,” she said. “It was pretty generic. I hate to say that, because it did come from Washington and the president. But, I’m going to guess that it was the same or similar to the letter that everybody else received.”
McCain, himself, though, called her and other families of the victims. He left a “really nice” phone message with his cell phone number in case she needed anything, she said. Kimball lives in Fort Benning, Georgia, and her son grew up in Cleveland, Texas.
Davies reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine, Claudia Lauer in Dallas, Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, Emily Schmall in Fort Worth, Texas, Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, Chris Carola in Albany, New York, Kristen de Groot in Philadelphia, Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, and Michelle Price in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
President Donald Trump emphatically rejected claims Wednesday that he was disrespectful to the grieving family of a slain soldier, as the firestorm he ignited over his assertions of empathy for American service members spread into a third contentious day. “I have proof,” he insisted.
The controversy over how Trump has conducted one of the most sacred of presidential tasks generated new turmoil in the White House. After one slain soldier’s father accused the president of going back on a promise to send a check for $25,000, the White House said the money had been sent.
Chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, was left angry and frustrated at the way the issue has become politicized. The dispute was fresh evidence of Trump’s willingness to attack any critic and do battle over the most sensitive of matters — and critics’ readiness to find fault with his words.
The aunt of an Army sergeant killed in Niger, who raised the soldier as her son, said Wednesday that Trump had shown “disrespect” to the soldier’s loved ones as he telephoned them to extend condolences as they drove to the Miami airport to receive his body. Sgt. La David Johnson was one of four American soldiers killed nearly two weeks ago; Trump made a telephone call to the families on Tuesday.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who was in the car with Johnson’s family, said in an interview that Trump had told the widow that “you know that this could happen when you signed up for it … but it still hurts.” He also referred to Johnson as “your guy,” Wilson said, which the congresswoman found insensitive.
Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who raised the soldier from age 5 after his mother died, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the Democratic congresswoman’s account was correct.
“Yes the statement is true,” she said. “I was in the car and I heard the full conversation.
At the airport, widow Myeshia Johnson leaned in grief across the flag-draped coffin after a military guard received it.
“She was crying for the whole time,” Wilson said. “And the worst part of it: When he hung up you know what she turned to me and said? She said he didn’t even remember his name.”
Trump started the storm this week when he claimed that he alone of U.S. presidents had called the families of all slain soldiers.
AP found relatives of four soldiers who died overseas during Trump’s presidency who said they never received calls from him. Relatives of three also said they did not get letters.
Obama and George W. Bush — saddled with far more combat casualties than the roughly two dozen so far under Trump — did not call all those soldiers’ families, either, but both did take steps to write, call or meet bereaved military families.
Chris Baldridge, the father of Army Cpl. Dillon Baldridge who was killed in June in Afghanistan, told The Washington Post that when Trump called him, he offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family. But Baldridge said it didn’t happen.
The White House said Wednesday that a check has been sent. And Trump spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said it was “disgusting” that the news media were casting his “generous and sincere gesture” in a negative light.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said protocol requires that the Pentagon and White House Military Office prepare and confirm an information packet before the president contacts grieving family members, a process that can take weeks. She said Trump has made some form of contact with every family for whom he has received the appropriate information.
Trump, who tangled with a Gold Star family during last year’s presidential campaign, fiercely denied Rep. Wilson’s version of events. He declared on Twitter: “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
He later insisted that he “didn’t say what that congresswoman said, didn’t say it at all. She knows it.”
In private, he bitterly complained to associates about the flare-up, believing the press was eager to paint his response in a negative light, according to two people who recently spoke to him but were not authorized to comment publicly about private conversations. His anger was echoed from the White House briefing room podium by Sanders, who said she was “appalled” by what she described as Wilson’s efforts to politicize the tragedy.
“Just because the president said ‘your guy’ doesn’t mean he doesn’t know his name,” said Sanders. She added that while no recordings of the conversation existed, several senior officials, including Kelly, witnessed the call and described Trump’s manner as “respectful” and “very sympathetic.”
Wilson did not back down from her account.
Like presidents before him, Trump has made personal contact with some families of the fallen but not all. What’s different is that Trump, alone among them, has suggested he’s done a better job of honoring the war dead and their families. He said Tuesday: “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died” while suggesting past presidents had not.
Trump’s delay in publicly discussing the lives lost in Niger does not appear to be unusual, judging from past examples, but his comments are. He went so far Tuesday as to cite the death of Kelly’s son to question whether Obama had properly honored the war dead.
Kelly was a Marine general under Obama when his Marine son Robert died in 2010. “You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” Trump said on Fox News radio.
Sanders said Obama did not call Kelly but it was not clear if some other form of contact was made. She added that Kelly was “disgusted” the condolence calls had been politicized but said she was not certain if the chief of staff knew Trump was going to talk about his son publicly.
Two White House officials said Kelly was also frustrated that the controversy had distracted from a significant military win over the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who led the Pentagon for a portion of the time Kelly served as commander of U.S. Southern Command, was bitterly critical of Trump’s comments.
“If there is one sacred ground in politics it should be the ultimate sacrifices made by our military,” Hagel wrote in an email to the AP. “To use General Kelly and his family in this disgusting political way is sickening and beneath every shred of decency of presidential leadership. Beyond the dignity of the office.”
Johnson was one of four soldiers killed in an ambush by dozens of Islamic extremists during a joint patrol by American and Niger forces, U.S. military officials say.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Curt Anderson and Josh Replogle in Miami and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.