WASHINGTON — More than 24 hours after President Trump ordered a halt to separating children from illegal immigrant parents at the southwest border, the action that was supposed to offer relief was generating widespread confusion.
The lack of clarity largely centered on the plight of the more 2,000 children, including toddlers and infants, who were removed from their parents and guardians in the past month while the adults were referred for prosecution on federal misdemeanor charges of illegal entry into the U.S.
The president's order, according to officials familiar with the directive's scope, was only meant to apply to new families swept up in illegal entry cases, leaving the children already in custody to languish in an undetermined status. In a scramble to find accommodations, an undisclosed number already had been moved to locations as far away as New York and Virginia.
Yet even in the new cases in which Trump pledged to keep families together while the parents were prosecuted, officials were confronting legal restrictions that allowed children to remain in detention with their parents for only 20 days.
The restriction is the product of a two-decade-old settlement involving immigrant children that limited the length of time they could be held in detention.
Short of congressional action or a court order, it was not immediately clear how the administration planned to deal with the time limitations.
Nevertheless, federal authorities were pressing ahead to accommodate entire immigrant families to remain together, under terms of Trump's new order.
In a memo to the Pentagon, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asked military officials prepare to house up to 20,000 immigrants at posts scattered throughout Texas and Arkansas.
Military authorities were notified that they could expect to start receiving families as soon as next month. HHS said late Thursday that if the unaccompanied immigrant children are provided shelter at military facilities, HHS workers or grantees would "provide all care for the children."
The program for unaccompanied children regularly evaluates the capacity of about 100 shelters in 17 states. Other properties are often identified and evaluated by federal agencies as potential shelters as well, HHS said.
The notification to the Pentagon signaled that the administration remained committed to its current "zero tolerance" policy to prosecute all immigrants who sought illegal entry. The action also promised that the government's detention program was on course to grow exponentially, despite Trump's order.
Early Thursday, a Washington Post report suggested that the government planned to back away from prosecuting new cases involving illegal immigrants traveling with families.
But both the Justice Department and Customs and Border Protection pushed back, saying that there had been no change to the zero tolerance policy.
"The Border Patrol will continue to refer for prosecution adults who cross the border illegally," Customs and Border Protection said in a statement.
Then, Thursday afternoon, the El Paso Times obtained a memo saying the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas will dismiss all illegal entry immigration cases in which children were separated from their families.
An email sent by Maureen Scott Franco, head of the Federal Public Defenders Office of the Western District of Texas, stated that federal prosecutors will dismiss the cases and no further charges will be filed against the parents. The email was sent by Franco to all defense lawyers who are part of the Western District of Texas Criminal Justice Association.
Franco could not immediately be reached for comment, but Daryl Fields, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Texas, issued a statement late Thursday confirming that an undisclosed number of cases were being dismissed.
Fields' statement was meant to clarify earlier remarks to NBC when he said that all illegal entry cases would be dismissed.
Fields could not be reached to elaborate.
Yet, a new policy may already be in force. Case in point: 17 immigrants were bused to the federal courthouse in McAllen on Wednesday morning, and then bused back to the detention center without ever being charged. Their fate is unclear.