American Airlines and United Airlines said Wednesday that they asked the Trump administration not to use their flights to carry migrant children who were separated from their parents by immigration authorities.
Facing growing opposition to his administration's recent policy of separating migrant families, President Donald Trump signed an order later in the day to keep families together at the nation's southern border.
The issue had galvanized flight attendants, some of whom took to social media to post accounts of seeing young passengers whom they believed to be migrants separated from their parents.
"We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it," American said in a statement.
United then issued a statement in which CEO Oscar Munoz said the company's purpose is to connect people. "This policy and its impact on thousands of children is in deep conflict with that mission and we want no part of it," he said.
Southwest, Frontier and Alaska also criticized the policy and asked not to be involved in transporting separated children.
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department criticized the airlines in strong terms, accusing them of no longer wanting to help the agency protect the traveling public and reunite unaccompanied illegal immigrant children with their families.
"Despite being provided facts on this issue, these airlines clearly do not understand our immigration laws," the spokesman, Tyler Houlton, said in a statement. He accused the airlines of "buckling to a false media narrative."
Things shifted again when Trump signed an executive order to keep families together at the southern border, saying at the White House that he doesn't like the sight of children being separated from their families. But he added that the "zero tolerance" policy will continue.
Delta Air Lines, which had been notably silent most of the day, then issued a brief statement calling reports of families being separated "disheartening," and praising Trump's executive order.
The White House announced its zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented migrants in early May. Since then, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the southwestern border, leading to a spike in the number of young children under government care. However, most of the unaccompanied minors in the custody of U.S. authorities arrived at the border without their parents.
Both American and United said they do not know whether any migrant children separated from their parents have been placed on their flights. In recent days several flight attendants have gone on social media to report seeing groups of children on their flights whom they believed to be children separated from their migrant families.
"These flight attendants were well aware of what was going on, so how can these airlines claim they didn't know? I don't believe that," said Michael Avenatti, a lawyer better known for representing a porn actress in a legal fight against Trump, but who said he also represents more than 50 migrant families who have been separated from their children.
Many airlines have contracts to provide travel services to the U.S. government. American said, however, that the government doesn't provide information about the passengers or their reason for travel.