WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is assessing how — and where — to house as many as 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on U.S. military bases, a spokesman said Thursday.
In a Pentagon statement, Lt. Col. Michael Andrews said officials from the Department of Health and Human Services have visited three military bases in Texas and one in Arkansas as the Trump administration seeks to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied children entering the United States.
Andrews indicated that no decisions have been made. "It doesn't mean any or all children would be housed there," he said of the four bases that are being studied.
The Pentagon and Health and Human Services Department "are working closely to determine the requirements and timing for support," Andrews said.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., questioned how such a plan to house 20,000 children could work.
"Is it even feasible?" Schumer asked.
The request comes as federal agencies Thursday offered competing and contradictory explanations of what was happening to immigrant families in the hours after President Donald Trump's order, leaving it unclear where families were being held and whether they were being prosecuted.
New, makeshift detention facilities are being envisioned to house thousands of immigrant families that are illegally entering the United States following Trump's executive order Wednesday, which called for detaining parents and children together instead of separating them.
Officials at the Pentagon also 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.
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 unsupported 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.
Government officials appear to have been given little time to prepare for the executive order.
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.
"Their story is not accurate," a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement.
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.