The fate of 2,300 children wrested from their parents at the US border with Mexico remained unclear Friday two days after Donald Trump ordered an end to migrant family separations, as the president accused Democrats of spinning "phony" tales of suffering for electoral gain.
While the US leader bowed to global outrage over the splitting of families, conflicting messages were contributing to a sense of chaos in the handling of the crisis.
Government agencies were unable to say what would happen to the children already sent to tent camps and other facilities spread across the country while their parents were charged with immigration offenses.
Having been forced into a climbdown on the hot-button issue of immigration, Trump swung back into fighting mode -- insisting he remained committed to the "zero tolerance" policy that aims to deter the flow of migrants from Central America.
"We must maintain a Strong Southern Border. We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections," he tweeted.
In a possible indication of the scope of the crackdown the Trump administration envisions, Time magazine reported that the US Navy is preparing plans to build detention centers for tens of thousands of immigrants on remote bases in support of the "zero tolerance" policy.
Trump also met at the White House with parents of victims killed by undocumented immigrants.
The parents standing with Trump have been "permanently separated from their loved ones," the president said, "because they were killed by criminal illegal aliens."
Trump continued to make political hay out of the crisis, accusing Democrats of "playing games" and not supporting tougher border policies. To fellow Republicans, his message was to "stop wasting their time on Immigration" until after the November midterm congressional elections.
On Thursday, divided congressional Republicans failed to pass one immigration reform bill, and a second proposal that includes language ending family separations was put off until next week.
While Melania Trump sought to demonstrate concern with a surprise visit to migrant children at the border on Thursday, the administration remained under siege amid continued accounts of parents unable to find their children and no system in place for reuniting them.
Lawyers working to reunite families said they were struggling to navigate a labyrinthine process.
"It's very difficult to reunite children with their parents because these government agencies were not prepared, and they're not designed, for family separation," said Efren Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project that represents 381 migrant parents.
- 'How is she?' -
Near Washington, protestors shouting "Shame!" demonstrated early Friday outside the home of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, two days after Trump announced her department would take over the handling and processing of families at the border.
Some reunifications were taking place, though it was unclear whether they involved the 700 children taken from parents between October and April, or the 2,300 since the mandatory prosecution of illegal border-crossers, whose children were taken away as a result, began in early May.
Others remained in painful limbo.
One woman, Cindy Madrid from El Salvador, repeatedly dictated her US-resident sister's phone number to her six-year-old daughter before she crossed the border and the family was separated.
The child was one of those heard crying out -- and reciting the number -- in an audio recording reportedly made inside a detention center, which galvanized opposition to the separations.
"It's maddening because at every moment I ask myself, 'How is she? Has she eaten? Are they taking care of her? Do they shower her?'" Madrid told CNN Thursday from a detention center in Port Isabel, Texas.
"There are many more rooms full of women going through the same thing," she said.
- Going back 'not an option' -
A senior Salvadoran government official, Liduvina Magarin, said she will travel next Sunday "to investigate the situation" of children from her country separated from family and held in McAllen, Texas.
The crisis has exposed bitter divisions on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers accused one another of political grandstanding -- and at least one used the ProPublica audio recording to hammer his point home.
As Democratic congressman Ted Lieu derided the separations as "a functional equivalent of kidnapping," he played the audio into a microphone, to a startled House chamber.
The presiding officer ordered Lieu to stop, but Lieu played the wails for four full minutes.
"I think the American people need to hear this," he said.
After several Democrats visited multiple facilities in recent days, Republican senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz went to government-run centers housing separated children to see conditions for themselves.
"Won't be easy to house families together, but we must do it," Rubio tweeted after visiting a facility in Homestead, Florida.
"Because we can never again go back to policy of either separating families or releasing everyone."
Tens of thousands of people from impoverished, violence-stricken Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and parts of Mexico have crossed the US border since last year requesting asylum.
Trump's crackdown hasn't deterred them, at least not yet.
"We don't see going back to where we came from as an option," Jose Abel Mendez, 28, who traveled from El Salvador with his wife and children, aged 10 months, six and 10, told AFP in the border city of Tijuana.
The Mendezes have been waiting two weeks for US officials to let them formally request asylum. The delay pushes many to cross the border illegally, activists say.