WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Leading figures of both parties pressured President Donald Trump on Sunday (June 17) to halt his administration's practice of separating children from their parents when apprehended at the border as the issue further polarised the already divisive immigration debate in Washington.
Republican lawmakers, former first lady Laura Bush and a one-time adviser to Trump joined Democrats, including former president Bill Clinton, in condemning the family separations that have removed nearly 2,000 children from their parents in just six weeks. The administration pushed back, arguing that it was just enforcing the law.
The issue took on special resonance on Father's Day as Democratic lawmakers made visits to detention facilities in Texas and New Jersey to protest the separations and the House prepared to take up immigration legislation.
Trump remained unusually silent on the issue Sunday even as Melania Trump weighed in, saying she "hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together". Melania Trump "believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with a heart", the First Lady said in a statement issued by her office.
By laying responsibility for the situation on "both sides," Trump effectively echoed her husband's assertion that it was the result of a law written by Democrats. In fact, the administration announced a zero-tolerance approach in April, leading to the separations.
Bush, the last Republican First Lady, spoke out forcefully against the practice on Sunday in a rare foray into domestic politics, comparing it to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. "I live in a border state," she wrote in a guest column in The Washington Post. "I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart."
She attributed the situation entirely to the administration. "The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders," she wrote.
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, condemned the separations Sunday, except in cases where there is evidence of abuse or another good reason.
"What the administration has decided to do is to separate children from their parents to try to send a message that, if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you," she said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.
"That is traumatising to the children, who are innocent victims. And it is contrary to our values in this country." "We know from years of experience that we need to fix our immigration laws," she added, "and that using children is not the answer."
Clinton likewise spoke out, suggesting that Trump was using the widely condemned practice to leverage Democrats into accepting immigration limits in legislation they would otherwise oppose.
"These children should not be a negotiating tool," he wrote on Twitter. "And reuniting them with their families would reaffirm America's belief in & support for all parents who love their children." Hillary Clinton retweeted that message, adding, "YES!"
Contrary to the president's public statements, no law requires families to necessarily be separated at the border. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' zero tolerance announcement that the government will prosecute all unlawful immigrants as criminals set up a situation in which children are removed when their parents are taken into federal custody.
Previous administrations made exceptions to such prosecutions for adults travelling with minor children, but the Trump administration has said it will not do so.
The furore over the separation policy seemed to grow even as the president planned to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday in advance of votes on immigration legislation that has divided his party. Two competing bills are headed to the floor, a hard-line immigration measure that is expected to go down, and a compromise version crafted by the House Republican leadership.
Trump has confused his allies in the House with conflicting signals about his preferences. At one point Friday, he said he would not sign the "moderate" Bill embraced by the House speaker, Paul Ryan, only to have the White House later contradict that by saying the president had been confused.
Melania Trump's statement echoed the president's words Friday, when he told reporters that "I hate the children being taken away." He then added, "The Democrats have to change their law - that's their law."
With the fate of the legislation uncertain, Democrats are trying to focus attention on the separation policy as an example of what they call Donald Trump's extremist approach to immigration.
Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland led a group of Democratic lawmakers to a detention facility in Brownsville, Texas, on Sunday but were not allowed to talk with children held there. Seven House Democrats visited a detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and said they were blocked for nearly two hours before being allowed to see parents separated from their children.
"Trump claims Democrats are to blame for families' being broken up," said one of the Democrats, Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey. "That is a lie. Republicans control every branch of government."
Trump has said in recent days that Democrats should agree to his panoply of immigration measures, including full financing for a border wall and revamping the system of legal entry to the country, in effect making clear that any legislation addressing family separation must also include his priorities.
A top adviser to Trump said Sunday that the president was not using the family separation as leverage to force Democrats to come to the table on other policy disputes, rebutting an unnamed White House official quoted by The Washington Post.
"As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has got a conscience, and wouldn't say the junk that somebody said, apparently, allegedly, I will tell you that nobody likes this policy," Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, said on "Meet the Press" on NBC. "You saw the president on camera that he wants this to end, but everybody has, Congress has to act."