WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday stood by the “zero tolerance” policy that has separated close to 2,000 immigrant children from their parents at the southern border despite heat from his own party, including his wife, and every living former first lady.
As news organizations ran images of children penned indoors inside chain-link fences, Trump defended the policy, even though he has maintained that he hates it when children are taken from their parents.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp,” Trump declared at an East Room meeting of the National Space Council. “And it will not be a refugee holding facility.”
Trump also again blamed Democrats for not working with Republicans to pass a big immigration package.
“I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault,” Trump said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took issue with Trump placing blame on Democrats.
“He may not want to admit it, but the president could end his family separation policy & #KeepFamiliesTogether right now, today, with just a phone call,” she tweeted.
“The obvious fact remains that Donald Trump created this humanitarian disaster,” added Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez. “He can fix it and allow these children to be with their families.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the policy Monday at a White House briefing. Nielsen said the issue has been growing for years and is the product of loopholes that have created an open border.
To deter unlawful crossings, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April a “zero tolerance” plan to charge all adults who cross the border illegally, including adults with children who customarily had been charged and released. Trump frequently refers to this process as “catch and release.”
What critics branded a heartless breaking-up of families, Nielsen described as a decision to apply the law equally and “no longer exempt entire classes of people who break the law.”
‘Not a controversial idea’
Nielsen also noted that Americans who are arrested for committing crimes are separated from their families.
“This is not a controversial idea,” she said.
Migrants who can document that they are parents would not be separated from their children if they seek asylum at designated ports of entry, officials said. This would prevent human traffickers from using children to facilitate the entry of nonrelatives.
Nielsen argued that releasing children to the adults apprehended with them can reward human smugglers who pretend to be their family.
“Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it,” she said.
Mindful of the national outcry, lawmakers in both parties rushed Monday to devise a targeted legislative fix.
GOP senators, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, said they were considering legislation that would keep migrant families together, provide additional judges so detained families would face shorter waiting periods and provide facilities for the families to stay.
Graham said that on Monday he talked to about 40 senators, including Democrats, but not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“It’s a concept it seems everybody is jumping on board,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she had the backing of the Democratic caucus for a bill that would prohibit the separation of migrant children from their parents, with exceptions for findings of child abuse or trafficking.
Narrow fix opposed
But the White House signaled it would oppose any narrow fix aimed solely at addressing the plight of children separated from their parents under the immigration crackdown. Press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump’s priorities, like funding a border wall and tightening immigration laws, must also be fulfilled as part of any legislation.
“We want to fix the whole thing,” she said. “We don’t want to tinker with just part of it.”
While Trump was standing firm, the list of those speaking out against the policy grew longer.
Through a spokeswoman, first lady Melania Trump, an immigrant herself, told CNN she “believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
In Sunday’s Washington Post, former first lady Laura Bush called the administration’s policy “eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II.” She also called it “cruel” and “immoral” and said it breaks her heart.
Former first ladies Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter also registered their disapproval of the separations.
In addition, prominent conservative Christians have spoken out against the policy. Franklin Graham called the practice “disgraceful” on the Christian Broadcasting Network. And the Mormon church said it is “deeply troubled” by the separation of families and urged national leaders to find compassionate solutions.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.