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Trump politicizes deaths of two immigrant children to score points in border wall fight

President Trump on Dec. 29 blamed Democrats and "their pathetic immigration policies" for any deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump on Saturday politicized the deaths of two immigrant children who died while in custody of the Department of Homeland Security in his latest bid to score points against Democrats in his fight for border wall funding.

In a pair of midday tweets, Trump asserted that the children, both from Guatemala, were already ill before being apprehended by federal authorities, even though the circumstances remain under investigation. He called the deaths of children at the border the “fault” of Democrats because of their “pathetic immigration policies” — even though his administration created new policies to slow the ability of immigrants to seek legal paths into the country.

“Border Patrol needs the Wall and it will all end,” Trump tweeted.

The tweets marked Trump’s first public comments about the deaths of the children, and he offered no empathy to the families and took no responsibility for the government’s handling of their cases.

President Trump's holiday plans were changed by a government shutdown, a death at the border and unsettled stock markets. (Video: Joyce Koh, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

The deaths of Jakelin Caal, 7, on Dec. 8, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, on Dec. 24, have raised questions about the care of immigrants who are in U.S. government custody as the Trump administration has toughened rules for those entering the country without authorization, including families with children.

Guatemalan boy who died in U.S. custody tested positive for influenza

The administration has sought to limit the ability of immigrants to seek asylum protections and has worked with Mexico to create a new program in which migrants, most from Central America, must remain in that country as their asylum cases are processed.

Trump’s tweets came amid a standoff with Democrats over a funding bill that lapsed eight days ago, forcing a partial government shutdown. The president has refused to accept a bill that does not include at least $2.5 billion for the border wall, but Democrats have said they will not go above $1.3 billion for border security provisions that do not include a wall.

“The fact that the president is blaming Democrats or blaming anybody illuminates that this is a political game that he is playing and it is not an issue where he is really concerned at all for either American security or the protection of a highly vulnerable population,” said Gregory Chen, government relations director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “He’s not trying to solve a problem, he’s trying to enact political gain.”

Chen added that “the lack of preparation rests right at the feet of DHS and this administration for not devoting more resources to the migrants in the caravan and ensuring these families are screened for asylum.”

Having canceled a planned vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to remain in Washington during the shutdown, Trump has spent the past three days mostly sequestered inside the White House, taunting his rivals on social media. Most members of Congress of both parties have left town for the holidays and a deal to reopen the government does not appear possible before they return after New Year’s Day.

In one missive, Trump said he was waiting for Democrats “to come on over and make a deal on Border Security.” Alluding to plans by House Democrats to launch investigations into Trump’s policies, personal finances and other matters once they assume control Thursday, Trump added: “From what I hear, they are spending so much time on Presidential Harassment that they have little time left for things like stopping crime and our military!”

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), one of eight Republicans who voted against a spending bill approved by the House that included Trump’s initial demand of $5 billion for the wall, said in an interview Saturday that fixing the problems of illegal immigration is “going to require us to start thinking about long-term solutions and not trying to score political points by finger-pointing.”

“When the deaths of children are involved, or the death of anybody is involved, we should be making sure that we’re taking all of the steps necessary to prevent this,” said Hurd, who represents the largest border area of any Congress member. “And I think this is an example of how the hard-working men of Border Patrol are faced with challenges they have not been prepared for or don’t have the resources to deal with.”

The deaths of the two migrant children have sparked outrage among Democrats and immigrant rights groups. Investigations into the incidents are ongoing, and the official cause of death in both cases has not been announced.

Jakelin and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cruz, were not provided water when they were held for eight hours at a border station in New Mexico, the family’s attorney said, and the young girl began vomiting during a 90-minute bus ride. Her condition rapidly deteriorated and she died of dehydration and shock, authorities said. Customs and Border Protection officials disputed the father’s account, saying water and food were available and that the girl had consumed both after having had no food or water for days.

Felipe and his father were held at a facility in Alamogordo, N.M., on Christmas Eve after days of being shuttled from one Border Patrol facility to another. They expected that the U.S. government was about to release them to await a deportation hearing, just as the smugglers had promised. Instead, the boy vomited and spiked a fever; he died at a New Mexico hospital. He has tested positive for influenza B, officials said.

Trump threatens to shut down southern border in government funding stalemate

With her agency facing increasing criticism, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced the new medical screenings for immigrant children and she embarked Friday on a two-day tour of border facilities in Texas and New Mexico.

“We have to put a stop on this. We cannot lend ourselves to wishing it would go away,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said of the children’s deaths at a news conference in El Paso on Saturday after touring the Border Patrol facility where Felipe and his father were initially detained.

She was speaking along with Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) at an Annunciation House shelter, one of a series that have been housing more than 2,000 migrants a week released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the El Paso area in recent weeks. The pace of the release is expected to double in coming days as federal authorities seek to minimize stays in small holding cells that weren’t designed for families.

Jackson Lee said she saw “children coming in. They’re coming in every day. Just making an announcement they should stop, or saying you should have a wall, is not going to stop this humanitarian crisis.”

“This fixation on the wall is such a distraction from real solutions,” Escobar said.

Trump asserted in his tweets that Democrats support policies that “allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally. They can’t. If we had a Wall, they wouldn’t even try!”

U.S. law allows migrants to seek asylum protections and, in most cases, win the right to a hearing before an immigration judge. The immigration court system has lengthy backlogs, and migrants are often released into the country to wait for their hearings. The Trump administration has sough to close what they call legal “loopholes,” detain immigrants longer and speed up deportations.

Democrats have said any such changes should be part of a more comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws and they have opposed rolling back due process rights for migrants.

Moore reported from El Paso.