The Pentagon began making preparations for the policy last month, The Washington Post reported. Up to 20,000 beds at bases in the two states would house "unaccompanied alien children", another Pentagon spokesman told The New York Times.
Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) and Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrats on the Senate and House Armed Services committees, wrote a letter to Mattis on Wednesday requesting assurances that members of Congress would have access to any migrant facility established on a military base.
The secretary, pressed on the sensitivities of the Trump administration separating children from their parents, said reporters would need to ask "the people responsible for it".
Mattis spoke just before President Trump signed an executive order meant to end family separations at the USA southern border, attempting to staunch the controversy over the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy on illegal immigration.
Video footage of children sitting in cages and an audiotape of wailing children sparked worldwide anger.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep together children and parents apprehended for crossing the border illegally for at least 20 days. But confusion remains, including about reuniting those already separated.
In the Texas border city of McAllen, federal prosecutors unexpectedly did not pursue charges against 17 immigrants.
First lady Melania Trump on Thursday visited children displaced by the immigration crisis. "It's a jacket", said Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump's spokeswoman.
"I'm not going to chime in from the outside", he said.
The president said, however, the message was directed at news organizations, which he dubbed the "Fake News Media".
The executive order was an unusual retreat for Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a key part of his presidential campaign.
"This is a human rights mess".
Separately, the USA military was asked by the government to get ready to house up to 20,000 unaccompanied immigrant children at military bases, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis said.
Asked about the possibility of military bases being involved again, Mattis said Wednesday that the Defense Department would "see what they come up with" in HHS, and that the Pentagon will "respond if requested".
'We have housed refugees.
"We have housed people thrown out of their homes by earthquakes and hurricanes", Mattis said.
In a filing in US District Court for the Central District of California, the Justice Department asked a judge to modify a 1997 settlement that has been interpreted as setting a 20-day limit on detaining children who entered the country illegally, regardless of whether they entered with a parent.
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