Washington: US President Donald Trump on Saturday blamed opposition Democrats for the death of two immigrant children in US custody, comments set to heighten tensions as the second week of a government shutdown began over his demands for a border 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. They can't. If we had a Wall, they wouldn't even try!" Trump said on Twitter.
His comments came after the separate deaths of two Guatemalan children, aged seven and eight, who crossed the border illegally with relatives who were taken into custody by US Border Patrol.
The tweet hardened his tone after an earlier message on Twitter Saturday which said the next move in the eight-day budget standoff over border wall funding belonged to the Democrats.
"I am in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security," Trump tweeted.
But members of Congress, most of them home for the holidays, continued to keep low profiles, and there were no evident signs of any imminent breakthrough.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Saturday was in Yuma, Arizona, on the second day of a trip to witness border operations firsthand after she last week said the US will take "extraordinary" protective measures to deal with a surge of immigrant children in custody.
Eight-year-old Felipe Gomez, who collapsed after running a fever, died in US custody after traveling with his father Agustin Gomez from an indigenous community in Guatemala.
He died on the same day that Jakelin Caal, a Guatemalan girl who died in US custody under similar circumstances earlier this month, was buried in her home village after the repatriation of her body.
In the last two months, US Border Patrol agents have apprehended 139,817 people on the southwest border, compared with 74,946 during the same period a year earlier, Nielsen said.
More than 68,500 were "family units" while almost 14,000 others were unaccompanied children, she said, and the system has been pushed to the "breaking point".
When the shutdown began on December 22, affecting one-quarter of the federal government, Trump canceled his plans to spend the year-end holidays in Florida and vowed to remain at the White House -- though he made a quick, unannounced trip to visit US troops in Iraq.
But as he tries to build pressure on Democrats to help fund the US-Mexico border wall he sees as an urgent priority -- threatening even to close the border if no deal is reached -- Democrats appear adamant in their refusal to pay for a project they view as a waste of money.
Some conservative Republicans, meantime, appear equally determined to press for the wall.
Trump has demanded USD 5 billion for wall construction -- though the White House reportedly has shown flexibility on that number -- while Democrats have offered to spend no more than USD 1.3 billion for border security measures not including a wall.
Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to be House speaker in the new Congress, has vowed to "swiftly" reopen the government once her Democrats take control of that chamber from the Republicans next Thursday.
She said Democrats "will govern responsibly in stark contrast to this chaotic White House."
The effects of the shutdown have been slow to appear -- many of the 800,000 government employees sent home or working without pay would have been off for the holidays anyway -- but once the New Year arrives, pressure is sure to grow.
The popular Smithsonian museums in Washington, for example, found money to stay open through New Year's Day but, according to their website, will close on January 2 if the standoff continues.
While most of the US military is unaffected, about 42,000 Coast Guard members are working without pay. That branch falls under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Pentagon.
This is the third government shutdown of the year, following a three-day closure in January and a brief event in February.
Shutdowns have rarely been popular with the public.
A recent NPR/PBS/Marist Poll found that Americans -- by 57 per cent to 36 per cent -- favoured Trump seeking compromise rather than standing firm on his wall demand.