Trump tells federal agencies to reunite families at US-Mexico border while Melania visits Texas detention centers

WASHINGTON/MCALLEN, Texas, June 21 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Thursday he was directing federal agencies to begin reuniting children and parents separated at the U.S.-Mexico border after entering the country illegally, a first step to implementing his executive order reversing an administration policy that had drawn global condemnation.

Trump's announcement came as his wife, Melania, made a damage-control visit to a border detention facility in Texas where children are being held. Video footage of children sitting in cages and an audiotape of wailing children had sparked anger as the images were broadcast worldwide.

"We want to put them together. We don’t want to have children separated from their parents," Trump said at a meeting with his Cabinet.

RELATED: Melania Trump visits border detention facility

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MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump arrives at McAllen Miller International Airport to attend a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump arrives at McAllen Miller International Airport to attend a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US First Lady Melania Trump takes part in a roundtable discussion at Luthern Social Services of the South's Upbring New Hope Children Center in McAllen, Texas on June 21, 2018. - First Lady Melania Trump made a surprise visit to the US-Mexican border on Thursday, June 21, 2018 as her husband's administration seeks to quell a firestorm over migrant family separations. President Donald Trump first announced the trip by his wife, who will tour a non-profit social services center for migrant children, as well as a customs and border patrol processing center, according to a statement from her office. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump walks through the facility with program director Rogelio de la Cerda Jr. after a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US First Lady Melania Trump takes part in a roundtable discussion at Luthern Social Services of the South's Upbring New Hope Children Center in McAllen, Texas on June 21, 2018. - First Lady Melania Trump made a surprise visit to the US-Mexican border on Thursday, June 21, 2018 as her husband's administration seeks to quell a firestorm over migrant family separations. President Donald Trump first announced the trip by his wife, who will tour a non-profit social services center for migrant children, as well as a customs and border patrol processing center, according to a statement from her office. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump walks through the facility after a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US First Lady Melania Trump takes part in a roundtable discussion at Luthern Social Services of the South's Upbring New Hope Children Center in McAllen, Texas on June 21, 2018. - First Lady Melania Trump made a surprise visit to the US-Mexican border on Thursday, June 21, 2018 as her husband's administration seeks to quell a firestorm over migrant family separations. President Donald Trump first announced the trip by his wife, who will tour a non-profit social services center for migrant children, as well as a customs and border patrol processing center, according to a statement from her office. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump walks through the facility after a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump participates in a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump walks through the facility after a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump participates in a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump participates in a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 21: U.S. first lady Melania Trump participates in a round table discussion with doctors and social workers at the Upbring New Hope Childrens Center operated by Lutheran Social Services of the South and contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The first lady traveled to Texas to see first hand the condition and treatment that migrant children taken from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are receiving from the federal government. Following public outcry and criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separation of migrant children from their families, a practice the administration employed to deter illegal immigration at the border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Trump told the Cabinet he had directed the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services "to work together to keep illegal immigrant families together during the immigration process and to reunite these previously separated groups."

Last week Trump had said only Congress could change the separation policy but on Wednesday he signed an executive order to keep families together during immigration proceedings. The order still faces possible legal challenges and administration lawyers were expected to file a request as early as Thursday to modify a 1997 court settlement that limits the government's detention of minors to 20 days.

Melania Trump made an unannounced trip to the border city of McAllen to meet with staff members at a detention facility for minors and asked about their work and the treatment of children.

"I’m here to learn about your facility, in which I know you house children on a long-term basis, and also like to ask you how I can help these children to reunite with their families as quickly as possible," she said.

The executive order was an unusual reversal for Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a key part of his presidential campaign. It moves parents with children to the front of the line for immigration proceedings but it does not end a 10-week-old "zero tolerance" policy that calls for prosecution of immigrants crossing the border illegally under the country's criminal entry statute.

 

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There were some early signs that prosecutors at the border with Mexico were showing more leniency.

In a federal courthouse in McAllen, not far from the detention facility the first lady visited, 17 cases against parents who had crossed illegally and whose children had been taken away were dismissed on Thursday, according to Carlos Garcia, an immigration attorney on the board of directors of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

There was no formal court proceeding and the magistrate judge was not there, said Garcia, who was in attendance. Instead, federal public defenders told the 17 adults they would not be prosecuted.

There was no immediate prospect, however, of them reuniting with their children. The children and parents were separated two or three days ago and are now in custody, with parents unaware of their exact whereabouts. Attorneys have not been notified of any reunification efforts, Garcia said.

RELATED: 'Tent city' for immigrant children separated from parents in Texas

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'Tent city' for immigrant children separated from parents in Texas
Raymondville, UNITED STATES: A futuristic USD 65 million tent city designed to hold about 2,000 illegal immigrants is pictured 10 April 2006 in Raymondville, Texas. The newly-constructed barbed-wire enclosed camp in the Rio Grande Valley will hold illegal immigrants for weeks to years until they can be returned to their home countires by US officials. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are being housed in tents next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are being housed in tents next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. Picture taken June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The inside of a dormitory at the Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS Picture taken June 14, 2018. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, walk in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS Picture taken June 14, 2018. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are being housed in tents by the Department of Homeland Security next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS Picture taken June 14, 2018. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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The administration also has sought a permanent legislative fix on the issue, but congressional Republicans said the U.S. House of Representatives was likely to reject two immigration bills designed to halt the practice of splitting up families and address a range of other immigration issues.

Republican U.S. Representatives Ralph Norman and Mark Meadows, prominent members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters they did not think either of the bills had enough support to pass the Republican-controlled House.

Both House bills, backed by Trump but opposed by Democrats and immigration advocacy groups, would fund the wall Trump has proposed along the U.S. border with Mexico and reduce legal migration, in part by denying visas for some relatives of U.S. residents and citizens living abroad.

The more conservative bill would deny the chance of future citizenship to "Dreamers" - immigrants brought illegally into the United States years ago when they were children.

Even if a bill clears the House, it would face an uncertain future in the Senate, where lawmakers are considering different measures and where Republicans would need at least nine senators from the Democratic caucus to join them to ensure any bill could overcome procedural hurdles.

"What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate, and the Dems are only looking to Obstruct," Trump said in a tweet as he renewed his call for a change in Senate rules to allow legislation to move with a simple majority.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Amanda Becker, James Oliphant and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Mitchell Ferman in McAllen Writing by John Whitesides Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)

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