Hillary Clinton has spoken up to slam Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy of separating families when they cross the US border illegally as “truly, unimaginably cruel”. She also hinted that perhaps his official visit to Britain next month should not go ahead “until the children are reunited” with their parents.
In an interview with the Guardian, Clinton said that the reality of a Trump presidency “has been worse” than even her darkest fears would allow.
She accused Trump of retreating on his hardline immigration policy, which has separated more than 2,300 children from their parents at the US southern border in recent weeks, because “even for him the optics were terrible”. She also expressed concern that some families may never be reunited.
“The question of how we reunite the children who were taken from the parents is the one that’s keeping me up at night,” she said.
The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate said the policy appears to be part of a wider strategy to build support for Trump’s long-sought border wall, which was a central promise of his campaign – although he always pledged that he would force Mexico to pay for it, a boast that has proved hollow.
“You do not have to take children away from their parents to negotiate to get what you want on the wall,” she said. “There’s enough different strands in the immigration debate that he could give a little somewhere, and try and get in return, like you do in a democracy, in a political legislative process. But he has chosen instead to be very oppositional to anyone who criticizes him, to be very intimidating to everyone in his own party by threatening to unleash his base against them, and so he’s adopted these all-or-nothing positions.”
Under overwhelming political pressure, Trump issued an executive order last week that sought to end family separations but did not address how the administration would reunite parents with their children, some of whom are now thousands of miles away from the border where they crossed.
Reunifications are happening, according to data provided by the Department of Homeland Security. But advocates and lawyers representing migrant parents said the system is chaotic and slow, with some mothers and fathers still waiting for answers about where their children have been placed.
Alex Azar, the secretary for Health and Human Services, said on Tuesday that the agency has 2,047 migrant children in its custody – just six fewer than the number HHS said were in its custody six days prior. A federal judge in California this week ordered ordered the Trump administration to reunite separated families within 30 days.
Asked about calls in the UK for the prime minister to cancel Trump’s forthcoming visit until the policy was cancelled, Clinton interjected: “Until the children are reunited.”
She quickly added: “I’m not going to speak for your government. You guys have to make your own decision. But this administration should be working 24/7 to reunite those kids. And if they aren’t, yes, there should be consequences.”
Earlier this month, the former secretary of state joined every living first lady, her husband, former president Bill Clinton, Pope Francis, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, in condemning the practice.
Melania Trump said in a statement that she “hates” the practice of family separations but echoed her husband in blaming both political parties for the administration’s policy. The first lady raised eyebrows last week when she wore a jacket with the message “I really don’t care, do u?” to and from a trip to Texas to meet with detained migrant children.
Clinton said she was truly mystified by the sartorial display.
“That I have no idea. I have no idea. I can’t even … I don’t have any idea. I don’t know,” she said.
Donald Trump said the message referred to her feelings about the “Fake News Media” but the office of the first lady insisted there was no hidden meaning and that it was “just a jacket”.
While Trump has sought to end the practice of family separations he continues to defend “zero-tolerance”, arguing that “open borders” is the only alternative to criminally prosecuting every migrant who crosses the border illegally – including asylum seekers.
Clinton said she warned during the campaign that Trump’s nativist vision of America might result in family separations – but said that the crisis was worse than she ever imagined.
“I was hopeful that I wouldn’t see the worst of my fears come true,” Clinton said. “But it has been worse. I have to tell you, even I did not believe this would happen.”