U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday said the separation of children from their parents trying to enter the United States illegally is “so sad,” but showed no signs of changing the policy.
“A country without borders is not a country at all,” Trump said. “We want safety and security for our country … and it starts with the border.”
The American leader said the U.S. would not be a “migrant camp” or “refugee holding facility.”
“Not on my watch,” Trump declared.
WATCH: Trump on immigration
Trump blamed opposition Democratic lawmakers for the impasse over U.S. immigration policies, even though Trump’s Republican party controls both chambers in Congress, and the family border policies were set by his administration.
“I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault,” Trump said. He said border policies “can be taken care of very quickly” if Democrats “come to the table” to negotiate with the majority Republicans, who themselves are divided over immigration issues.
Trump spoke at the White House as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers assailed Trump and his administration for tough border enforcement that has led to the family breakups, with nearly 2,000 children being sent to mass detention centers or foster care from mid-April to the end of May. Trump’s wife, first lady Melania Trump, through a spokeswoman, offered a rare public policy statement Sunday saying she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the (political) aisle (in Congress) can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
In New Orleans on Monday, both Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in speeches to a law enforcement group, defended the Trump administration’s stance on splitting up families if they try to enter the country illegally, vowing to prosecute the migrants and offering no apologies for the policy.
“Let’s be honest. There are some who would like us to look the other way when dealing with families at the border and not enforce the law passed by Congress,” she said. “We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family. We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job. We have sworn to do this job.”
Nielsen said, “This administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you. If you make a false immigration claim, we will prosecute you. If you smuggle illegal aliens across an extraordinarily dangerous journey, we will prosecute you.”
Sessions said, “We do not want to separate children from their parents. We do not want adults to bring children into this country unlawfully, placing them at risk.”
“But we do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our laws to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry,” Sessions added. “We cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws.”
Generosity being abused
Nielsen, who at times has drawn Trump’s ire for not keeping more immigrants out of the country, said, “We are a compassionate country,” admitting 3 million refugees since 1975, which she said was “more than all other countries combined.”
But she added, “Our generosity is being abused,” saying there has been a recent 315 percent increase in the number of illegal aliens using children as a way to get into the United States.
Nielsen said that foreign nationals seeking asylum in the U.S. should “go to a port of entry” for routine processing rather than attempt to enter the country over the rivers and rocky terrain along the southern border with Mexico. The wait for consideration of asylum claims in the U.S., however, can be lengthy, with Nielsen saying there currently is a backlog of 600,000 cases awaiting adjudication.
The Trump administration’s defense of separating children from their parents at the border came amid a growing protest, from both Republicans and Democrats.
Former first lady Laura Bush, the wife of former Republican President George W. Bush, wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post that the separation of children at the border is “cruel” and “immoral,” and said “it breaks my heart.”
Trump, in a string of Twitter comments, decried Europe’s problems with mass immigration and vowed to control the flow of migrants into the United States.
“Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country,” he said in one tweet. “Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”
In a rare rebuke of the United States, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said migrant children should not be separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Children must not be traumatized by being separated from their parents. Family unity must be preserved,” a Guterres spokesman said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Monday that seeking to deter parents by inflicting abuse on children is “unconscionable.”
“Mr. President, people do not lose their human rights by virtue of crossing a border without a visa,” Zeid said. “I deplore the adoption by many countries of policies intended to make themselves as inhospitable as possible by increasing the suffering of many already vulnerable people.”
The furor over the Trump policy of “zero tolerance” for unauthorized border arrivals is occurring as the House of Representatives prepares for expected votes this week on major reforms to U.S. immigration laws, including whether to create a path to U.S. citizenship for as many as 1.8 million undocumented young immigrants already living in the U.S. who were brought to the country illegally years ago by their parents.
Trump has repeatedly blamed Democrats for the separations, claiming they are responsible for the situation. The Trump administration put in place the policy to arrest all migrants who illegally cross the U.S. border, including those seeking asylum, and because children cannot be sent to the same detention facilities as their parents, they are separated.
“The Democrats should get together with their Republican counterparts and work something out on Border Security & Safety,” Trump tweeted late Sunday. “Don’t wait until after the election because you are going to lose!”
Trump is scheduled to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss two competing Republican immigration reform bills.
Both bills would provide legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, make sweeping changes to legal immigration, and boost U.S. border security. It is unclear if either will attract enough votes to pass.