U.S. mayors take stand against child separation at Texas border

U.S. mayors take stand against child separation at Texas border

Mayors across the U.S. have travelled to Texas to take a stand against the separation of children from their families and placing them in cages at the border.

The Trump administration has set up at least three "tender age" shelters to detain babies and other young children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, The Associated Press has learned.

The largest foster agency handling young migrant children in the U.S. is Bethany Christian Services, whose 99 available foster beds in Michigan and Maryland are filled.

Kids as young as 8 months old

The group's chief executive officer, Chris Palusky, said the youngest child separated from parents at the border is 8 months old. The average age of children in the organization's care dropped from 14 to 7 years old in recent weeks, after the zero tolerance policy was adopted, Palusky said.

The youngest children, he said, are shell-shocked -- crying themselves to sleep.

A group of bipartisan mayors in the U.S. are trying to change that.

"We have to find a better way to balance our mutual respect for the rule of law with our ability to be kind humans and decent folks that exhibit compassion," said Bryan Barnett, the mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan who travelled to El Paso, Texas on Thursday.

Mayors not allowed inside facility

Barnett, and others from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, were not allowed inside the facility where the children are being held. He said they were told the approval process takes about two weeks. The group of mayors made a spontaneous trip following U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on Wednesday that stopped the separation.

Instead, they held a news conference outside of the facility talking about "what currently is the biggest challenge in our nation - this immigration crisis."

"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, but this is an issue that's impacting families," said Barnett.

Since the White House announced its zero tolerance policy in early May, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in an influx of young children requiring government care. 

Mayors push Congress for more action

However, the goal of the mayors' visit Texas is to put pressure on Congress, and the U.S. government, to continue talking about the issue.

"The solution is more civilized dialogue," said Barnett.

The United Nations, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers and religious groups have sharply criticized the family separation policy, calling it inhumane.

Official argues family separation not inhumane

Not so, said Steven Wagner, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We have specialized facilities that are devoted to providing care to children with special needs and tender age children as we define as under 13 would fall into that category," he said. "They're not government facilities per se, and they have very well-trained clinicians, and those facilities meet state licensing standards for child welfare agencies, and they're staffed by people who know how to deal with the needs -- particularly of the younger children."

Since the process of separating children from the families has stopped, attention is shifting to the reuniting of the kids who are currently without their parents.

"We think the next big discussion is the reunification of kids with their families," said Barnett.

The order Trump signed Wednesday directs federal agencies to work with the Defense Department to prepare facilities to house detained families. During the surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border in 2014, HHS set up several temporary facilities at military bases.

It also instructs federal agencies -- especially the Defense Department -- to begin to prepare facilities that could house the potentially thousands of families that will now be detained by the government.