WASHINGTON (kTVU/AP) - The Trump administration is laying plans to use military bases to hold as many as 20,000 migrants in detention for illegally crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.
The Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that four possible bases have been identified for the temporary housing of migrant children. Those are Fort Bliss, Goodfellow Air Force Base and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, and Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.
First Lady Melania Trump made an unexpected visit to McAllen, Texas to see a facility housing migrant children who have been separated from their parents. The First Lady also had a meeting with the staff.
"So when the children come here, what kind of stage are they in -- physical, mental stage when they come here?" Mrs. Trump asked the staff.
"Usually when they get here they are very distraught in the sense that they don't know where they're at," said one of the workers.
Mrs. Trump told the children to "be kind and nice to each other."
Images and sounds of crying children being taken away from their families at the border has led to a bipartisan outcry over President Trump's "zero tolerance policy" of detaining and criminally prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border illegally.
About 500 of the more than 2,300 children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border have been reunited since May, a senior Trump administration official said Thursday. It was unclear, though, how many of the roughly 500 children were still being detained with their families. Federal agencies were working to set up a centralized reunification process for the remaining separated children and their families at the Port Isabel Detention Center just north of border in Texas, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The Trump administration previously had not said whether any hundreds of children who were separated from their families had been reunited. The official said many of reunited families were back together after a few days of separation. But other parents have said they don't know where their children are and were struggling to get answers.
Some mothers were deported without their kids.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia ordered an investigation into claims by children at an immigration detention facility that they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells.
The Justice Department Thursday asked a federal Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles to change the rules of the Flores settlement which says the government can't keep children in criminal detention facilities longer than 20 days.
"The settlement imposed many limits on what the United States government can do relative to children in detention. The settlement is binding on the United States government," said Edwin Chereminsky, Dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, "If the government breaks those terms, then it can be held in contempt and be punished by the judge."
Meantime, there are questions the Trump administration has not answered, such as how do they plan to prosecute all of the people being detained and how much the "zero tolerance" policy might cost.
"We don't have the facilities or capacity to criminally prosecute large numbers of people for doing this. We don't have the detention facilities, we don't have the immigration courts, we don't have the federal courts to do it," said Chemerinsky.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said claims that immigrants will disappear and not show up for court dates are contrary to statistics.
"According to ICE's own statistics, 99.8% of people in the alternative to detention program show up to their day in court," said Feinstein.
So far, President Trump and Republicans in Congress have struggled to find a solution.
A conservative immigration plan from Virginia Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte failed Thursday with 41 House Republicans joining all Democrats in voting no 231-193.
Goodlatte's bill included funding for the border wall, a change to merit-based visas and much of what President Trump wants, but no pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children and have proven they have no criminal records.
That pathway for Dreamers is a key difference from alternate legislation backed by moderate house Republicans.
"A vote against this legislation is the status quo," said Republican Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo.
A vote on the moderate bill was delayed until next week.
"It is not a compromise. It may be a compromise with the devil but it's not a compromise with the Democrats in terms of what they have in their bill," said House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi.
Meanwhile, there were signs that the administration was dialing back its "zero tolerance" policy, for now.
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 AP.
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.
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 and called for the immediate reunification of immigrant children with their families.
"This is a humanitarian crisis," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said.
California and nine other states have indicated they plan to sue the Trump administration, claiming there has been a violation of the children's due process.