WASHINGTON — Leading figures of both parties demanded on Sunday that President Donald Trump halt his administration's practice of separating children from their parents when apprehended at the border, as the issue further polarized the already divisive immigration debate in Washington.
Republican lawmakers, former first lady Laura Bush, a conservative newspaper and a onetime adviser to Trump joined Democrats 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, a false assertion that Trump has made repeatedly.
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 this week. Pictures of children warehoused without their parents in facilities, including a converted Walmart store, have inflamed passions and put the administration on the defensive.
Trump did not directly address the family separations on Sunday, saying only that Democrats should work with Republicans on border security legislation. "Don't wait until after the election because you are going to lose!" he wrote on Twitter.
But 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.
By laying responsibility for the situation on "both sides," Melania 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 this spring, leading to the separations.
Bush, the last Republican first lady, spoke out forcefully against the practice 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.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-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 traumatizing to the children, who are innocent victims. And it is contrary to our values in this country."
Former President Bill 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 this spring 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 traveling with minor children, but the Trump administration has said it will not do so. While the president has blamed Democrats, his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, told The New York Times last week that it was "a simple decision by the administration to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, period."
Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, rejected responsibility for the separations in a series of tweets Sunday. "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border," she wrote. "Period."
She made a distinction between asylum-seekers who try to enter the country at designated points of entry and those who arrive at other parts of the border. "For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between 'family' members, or if the adult has broken a law," she wrote.
But there have been reports of people arriving at the ports of entry asking for asylum and being taken into custody and some of the designated ports are not accepting asylum claims. In those cases, migrants sometimes cross wherever they can and, because it is not an official border station, are detained even though they are making a claim of asylum. Many would-be asylum applicants do not know where official ports of entry are.
The administration approach has drawn a cascade of criticism in recent days. Michael V. Hayden, who was CIA director for President George W. Bush, posted a picture of a Nazi concentration camp on Saturday and wrote, "Other governments have separated mothers and children." The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and a defender of Trump, called the family separations "disgraceful."
The furor 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 D. Ryan, only to have the White House later contradict that by saying the president had been confused.
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. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has collected 43 Democratic sponsors for legislation to limit family separations.
Sens. 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.
Some Republican lawmakers in recent days have pushed Trump to reverse or modify the family separation policy by giving new instructions to the Department of Homeland Security.
"President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., often an ally and golfing partner of the president's, said Friday on CNN. "I'll go tell him. If you don't like families' being separated, you can tell DHS stop doing it."
Anthony Scaramucci, who served briefly as White House communications director last year, said separating children from their families is not "the Christian way" or "the American way," and made clear he thinks Trump can end it on his own. "The President can reverse it and I hope he does," he wrote on Twitter.
The conservative editorial page of The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., agreed on Sunday. "It's not just that this looks terrible in the eyes of the world," it wrote. "It is terrible."
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."