Activists gather outside the White House to protest children being separated from their families at the US-Mexico border
24 June 2018: A US task force has been set up to reunify migrant families divided at the Mexican border under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" approach, a report said, as opposition Democrats on Saturday kept up the pressure against a "barbaric" policy.
Trump on Wednesday ordered an end to the family separations which have sparked domestic and global outrage, but the fate of the more than 2,300 separated children remains unclear.
US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar issued an order Friday to create the reunification task force, the Politico website reported, citing an internal document it had obtained.
Reflecting the breadth and complexity of the challenge, the document orders the department's preparedness and response office -- which deals with emergencies and public health disasters -- to assist its refugee resettlement office with the effort.
Politico quoted HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer as saying that Azar was "bringing to bear all the relevant resources of the department in order to assist in the reunification or placement of unaccompanied alien children and teenagers with a parent or appropriate sponsor."
The department did not immediately respond to an AFP request for confirmation.
In an effort to staunch the flow of tens of thousands of migrants from Central America and Mexico arriving at the southern boundary every month, Trump in early May had ordered that all those crossing the border illegally would be arrested, and their children held separately as a result.
In an about-face, he then ordered an end the splitting up of parents and children, saying it was administration policy to "maintain family unity... where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources."
"I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated," he said.
- Protests continue -
About 500 children have already been reunited with family members, CNN reported, quoting border officials.
Democratic lawmakers kept up the pressure Saturday, with roughly two dozen of them again visiting a detention facility where children are being held.
Jackie Speier, a California congresswoman, toured the facility in McAllen, Texas with the group. In a televised news conference, she said she saw children "under the age of five who were segregated from their parents and were crying... They're in cells and in cages."
Another California congresswoman, Barbara Lee, added: "The children especially are traumatized," and she called the Trump administration's immigration policy "barbaric."
Protest marches were scheduled this weekend in several cities, and advocacy groups including the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union are calling for a nationwide "Families Belong Together" protest on June 30.
The biggest demonstration is planned for Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.
- Housing on military bases -
It remains unclear how quickly reunifications can be carried out. Lawyers working to bring families back together said they were struggling through a labyrinthine process -- while more migrants continue to arrive.
Nearly all of the arriving families have officially requested asylum, citing the high levels of violence in their home countries.
The Pentagon is making contingency plans to house thousands of arrivals on US military bases. Defense Department officials said as many as 20,000 could be sheltered on bases in Texas, Arkansas and New Mexico if need be.
The separations have reportedly sparked intense debate even within the White House, leaving widespread confusion about the road forward.
But Trump has remained unapologetic, accusing his political rivals of exaggerating the problem for political gain.
"Open Borders Democrats... just want everyone to be released into our country no matter how dangerous they are," he said in his weekly address Saturday, again trying to link immigrants with crime.
"They can be killers, they can be thieves, they can be horrible people -- the Democrats say it's okay for them to be in our country. I don't think so."
In an earlier tweet, Trump accused Democrats of telling "phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections."