President Trump blamed Democrats on Saturday for the deaths of two migrant children in detention at the southwest border this month, wielding the episodes as justification to fund a border wall.
The comments came in twin posts on Twitter, where the president spent much of the day denouncing Democrats as the partial government shutdown approached its eighth day over his demand for funding for the wall.
“Any deaths of children or others at the border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally,” he wrote in one message, his first public remarks about the deaths. “They can’t. If we had a wall, they wouldn’t even try!”
[President Trump issued an executive order on Friday freezing pay for federal civilian workers in 2019.]
On Christmas Eve, a boy, 8, identified as Felipe Gómez Alonzo, died in United States custody. The authorities said that he had been taken to a hospital after showing what appeared to be signs of sickness. He was released but was taken again to the hospital, where employees were unable to revive him after he had fainted. Nearly three weeks earlier, Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, died after she had been taken to a Border Patrol station.
Both children had been detained with their fathers after being apprehended at the border.
In pointing to Democrats and their immigration policies, the president overtly injected politics into the children’s deaths and mischaracterized the reasons cited for them, as well as their families’ reactions.
“The two children in question were very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol,” the president said. “The father of the young girl said it was not their fault, he hadn’t given her water in days. Border Patrol needs the wall and it will all end. They are working so hard & getting so little credit!”
Many of the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death remain unknown. It is not clear whether his health deteriorated because of the journey to the United States, neglect by personnel in the various border facilities he was moved to or a combination of those factors.
Border Patrol said Jakelin had not eaten or consumed water for several days before being detained, but her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cruz, disputed that statement.
The president abruptly torpedoed a temporary spending deal last week to avert the shutdown after complaints from some of his most conservative backers in Congress, and instead demanded additional funding for the wall, a signature campaign promise.
Mr. Trump has since sought to blame Democrats for the shutdown, remaining in the White House rather than taking a planned extended trip to his private club, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Fla. But he has made no effort to reach out to the incoming Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in several days.
The president dug in further on Saturday, claiming: “For those that naïvely ask why didn’t the Republicans get approval to build the wall over the last year, it is because IN THE SENATE WE NEED 10 DEMOCRAT VOTES, and they will gives us ‘NONE’ for Border Security! Now we have to do it the hard way, with a shutdown. Too bad!”
Democrats have repeatedly indicated that they would support substantial funding increases for security at the southern border with Mexico. Many voted to do so in 2013 as part of a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration overhaul. But they view a wall like the one Mr. Trump advocates as an ineffective and costly response to an immigration system in disrepair.
Lawmakers in the party have offered Mr. Trump $1.3 billion for border security. Democratic leaders say they see little incentive to negotiate with the president after he repeatedly reversed himself on border funding, or to allocate more than $1.3 billion since the administration has spent only a small fraction of the money Congress approved last year for barriers along the border.
White House officials say that the president, who is concerned about the collapse of his own political support, feels good about his stance on the shutdown and sees no urgency toward making a deal with the incoming Democratic majority. And Mr. Trump has indicated to people that he believes the shutdown will slow down the Democrats in other pursuits, such as oversight investigations into his administration.
The deaths have prompted a wave of criticism of Customs and Border Protection practices. Officials with the agency have described such occurrences as rare, and have said that the systems in place are not set up to handle the influx of families with young children trying to enter the United States.
“They were built 30 to 40 years ago for single adult males, and we need a different approach,” the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin K. McAleenan, told CBS News last week. “We need help from Congress. We need to budget for medical care and mental health care for children in our facilities.”
Human rights activists point out that barriers along the border and the expansion of the Border Patrol have forced many migrants, including families, to attempt crossings at more remote and perilous places. Immigration lawyers also emphasize that it is legal under international and United States law for migrants to request asylum in the United States, challenging the president’s contention that migrants are entering the country illegally.
In various cases, American judges have upheld such rights. A federal judge in Manhattan ruled on Thursday that the government had violated the rights of a migrant from Ivory Coast who requested asylum at the Texas border in 2016 by jailing him for nearly three years without opportunity for bail.
Simon Romero contributed reporting.