WASHINGTON • The Trump administration defended its hardline immigration policy at the US-Mexico border as furore grew over the separation of immigrant parents and children, including video footage of youngsters sitting in concrete-floored cages.
Democrats blasted such treatment as "barbaric", while a few of President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans also voiced concern as the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives moved towards voting tomorrow on two pieces of immigration-related legislation.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, a Trump appointee, told reporters at a White House briefing on Monday that the administration was only strictly enforcing the law.
"This administration did not create a policy of separating families... What has changed is that we no longer exempt entire classes of people who break the law," she said.
The outcry over the detained children resulted from the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy, in which immigrants caught entering the US illegally are charged under the criminal entry statute, known as 1325.
Parents who are referred by border agents for prosecutions are held in federal jail, while their children are sent to separate detention facilities, some in remote locations.
Video footage released by the government showed migrant children held in wire cages sitting on concrete floors.
An audio recording said to capture the sounds of such children crying in a detention facility was circulating online. Reuters could not independently verify its authenticity.
Trump administration officials say the zero-tolerance policy, which was not practised by the two previous presidents, is needed to secure the border and deter illegal immigration.
Attorney-General Jeff Sessions defended the policy during an interview with Fox News on Monday.
"We are doing the right thing. We are taking care of these children. They are not being abused," he said.
But Democrats and some Republicans have admonished the administration for separating nearly 2,000 children from their parents between mid-April and end-May.
"The increasing number of children being ripped away from their parents is sickening," said Democratic Senator Michael Bennet.
"Yet the President and his administration continue to perpetuate falsehoods and blame others for their own cruelty."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said after visiting an immigration detention centre in San Diego: "Our message to Mr Trump is, 'Stop this inhumane, barbaric policy.'"
Ms Pelosi also called on Ms Nielsen to resign over the dispute.
Microsoft, one of America's largest businesses, said in a statement it was "dismayed".
"We urge the administration to change its policy and Congress to pass legislation ensuring children are no longer separated from their families," it said.
Mr Trump, whose promise to crack down on illegal immigration was a major theme of his 2016 campaign and one he has carried into his presidency, responded sharply to critics on Monday.
"The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won't be," he said at the White House.
Mr Trump has sought to use the widespread outrage over the family separations to push through other immigration priorities that have stalled in Congress, such as funding for his long-promised wall along the Mexican border.
He has blamed Democrats for the impasse, even though his fellow Republicans control both chambers of Congress.
A grand bargain in Congress to finally resolve deep divisions over immigration law appeared unlikely.
Mr Trump and House Republicans, in a meeting yesterday, were expected to discuss the two Bills scheduled for votes tomorrow.
Both were drafted with no input from Democrats.
One Bill would limit, but not fully prohibit family separations, fund Mr Trump's wall and give legal protections to young immigrants, known as "Dreamers", who were brought to the country illegally as children. Details were still in flux.
The Bill faces strong headwinds as it is opposed by Democrats, who object to another provision that would cut legal immigration levels, and conservative Republicans who are backing a rival Bill that takes a harder line on immigration.