HOUSTON, Texas (AP) - After days of mounting pressure, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the process of separating children from families at the border.
The order keeps families together while they are in custody, expedites their cases, and asks the Department of Defense to help house them.
The order does not address what will happen to the families who have already been separated.
Further complicating matters, the Justice Department warned Tuesday that a 21-year-old court settlement could force authorities to again separate the immigrant children from their parents in three weeks.
Trump's executive order will continue his "zero tolerance" policy of criminally prosecuting all adults caught crossing the border illegally and will now seek to keep families together instead of separating them while their legal cases are heard by the courts.
However, a 1997 landmark settlement, known as the Flores agreement, generally bars the government from keeping children in immigration detention for more than 20 days.
Trump wants the settlement to be overturned, but his Justice Department said Wednesday that the 20-day policy would remain in effect until Congress or the courts take action.
Trump's order also requests the Defense Department make facilities available on military bases to house detained immigrant families - or to construct new facilities. Depending on the availability of space, his order does not indicate whether children will continue to remain separated from their parents while additional facilities are being built.
TENDER AGE SHELTERS FOR BABIES
The Associated Press reports babies and other young children forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border are currently being sent to so-called tender age shelters in South Texas.
Playrooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis were described by lawyers and medical providers who visited the Rio Grande Valley shelters. The government plans to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston, where city leaders denounced the move Tuesday.
Trump administration officials say they haven't yet figured out how to reunite the thousands of children separated from their families at the border.
"We're still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication," said Steven Wagner, an acting assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Federal officials have set up hotlines and an email contact for parents seeking information about how to find their children.
"They should just give the kids back to their parents. This isn't difficult," said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union.
OUTPOURING OF CONCERN, DONATIONS
In an outpouring of concern prompted by images and audio of children crying for their parents, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide continue to donate to nonprofit organizations to help families being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
One fundraiser on Facebook, started by a Silicon Valley couple who say they felt compelled to help after they saw a photograph of a Honduran toddler sobbing as her mother was searched by a U.S. border patrol agent, has raised nearly $15 million, as of Wednesday evening.
David and Charlotte Willner, who have a 2-year-old daughter, set up the "Reunite an immigrant parent with their child" fundraiser on Saturday. Their initial goal was to collect $1,500 - enough for one detained immigrant parent to post bond.
Within days, people had donated $5 million to help immigrant families separated under the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy that prosecutes all adults caught crossing the border illegally.
"What started out as a hope to help one person get reunited with their family has turned into a movement that will help countless people," the couple said in a statement released by a spokeswoman Wednesday.
The money collected from more than 300,000 people in the United States and around the world will be given to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a Texas nonprofit that that offers free and low-cost legal services to immigrants.
RAICES said Wednesday it will use the funds to reunite families, provide legal services, and to start a joint reunification fund for the more than 2,300 migrant children that have been separated from their families at the border with Mexico since May.
RAICES, which has 50 lawyers, said it plans to hire more attorneys, train more volunteers, and set up a network of therapists and psychologists to help children when they leave detention, Jenny Hixon, RAICES's development director, told the Washington Post.
"It's not just the funding. We're getting literally thousands of people contacting us, wanting to volunteer. Many are like, 'I'll come to Texas,"' Hixon said.