“I say, very strongly, it’s the Democrats’ fault,” Trump said. “They’re really obstructionist . . . The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be. You look at what’s happening in Europe; you look at what’s happening in other places. We can’t let that happen in the United States, not on my watch.”
Contrary to Trump’s claims, the separations largely stem from a “zero-tolerance” policy announced with fanfare last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As more families are stopped for illegally crossing the border, adults are taken to detention facilities that are effectively jails, and children are sent elsewhere.
The White House also has interpreted a 1997 legal agreement and a 2008 bipartisan anti-human-trafficking bill as requiring the separation of families — a position not taken by the George W. Bush or Obama administrations.
“As everyone who has looked at this agrees, this was done by the president, not Democrats,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “He can fix it tomorrow if he wants to, and if he doesn’t want to, he should own up to the fact that he’s doing it.”
Democrats argue that Trump is trying to use a manufactured crisis to gain leverage in ongoing deliberations in Congress over immigration to secure funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall that was a marquee campaign promise.
“He’s playing a game,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said during an appearance on CNN on Monday morning. “He knows this family separation policy is very unpopular.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen appeared in the White House briefing room late Monday to defend the administration’s actions, arguing that it is simply enforcing the law and that Congress should act to close “loopholes” that are leading to families being separated.
“Here is the bottom line: DHS is no longer ignoring the law,” she said.
When pressed on why the Trump administration has chosen to interpret the law differently than both the Bush and Obama administrations when it comes to migrant families, Nielsen continued to argue that it is up to Congress to act.
But neither Nielsen nor White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would answer whether Trump would sign legislation if it only addressed family separation and did not include other polices the president is pushing, such as funding for his border wall.
Sanders said Trump does not want a “Band-Aid” approach.
Nielsen said the administration is not using its “zero tolerance” policy to pressure Congress to act on Trump’s broader immigration agenda, contradicting comments from other administration officials, and took issue with suggestions that children were being used as leverage in this debate.
“The children are not being used as a pawn; that is why we are asking Congress to act,” she said.
On Twitter over the weekend and again Monday, Trump blamed Democrats for the current state of affairs and urged them to agree to broader legislation on immigration that includes border wall funding and other White House priorities.
“Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration,” Trump wrote. “Change the laws!”
In another tweet, he contended that children “are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country.” And in other messages, Trump pointed to gangs coming into the country illegally and to struggles with migration in Germany, writing: “We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!”
The White House’s hard-line posture comes as a growing number of Republicans are joining Democrats to urge the administration to change its policy on family separations.
“The President should immediately end this family separation policy,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a lengthy Facebook post Monday. He said Trump doesn’t need Congress to change course on “the horrors of family separation.”
“The administration’s decision to separate families is a new, discretionary choice,” Sasse wrote. “Anyone saying that their hands are tied or that the only conceivable way to fix the problem of catch-and-release is to rip families apart is flat wrong.”
By “catch-and-release,” Sasse was referring to existing law that allows some immigrants to leave detention on bond. Trump has railed against the practice.
Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci also urged Trump to change course.
“I hope he changes it today, frankly,” Scaramucci said during a CNN interview Monday morning. “This is very, very bad for the Republican Party, and this is bad for the president. I want to see him win reelection.”
Appearing on NPR, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) took issue with a statement on Twitter over the weekend by Nielsen, who insisted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Hurd laughed, saying: “Kids are being separated . . . In the last two months, there’s been about2,000. The previous year it was almost 700. And 100 of those kids were under the age of 4.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) abandoned plans Monday for his state to send National Guard assets to the southern border, citing the forced separations of families, which his office decried as “inhumane.”
“Governor Baker directed the National Guard not to send any assets or personnel to the Southwest border today because the federal government’s current actions are resulting in the inhumane treatment of children,” Lizzy Guyton, Baker’s communications director, said in a statement.
Earlier this month, officials in Massachusetts had announced plans for the state’s National Guard to send a helicopter and military analysts to the border to assist with security operations.
Former first lady Laura Bush also spoke out against the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” over the weekend, writing in an op-ed in The Washington Post that it is “cruel” and “immoral.”
“And it breaks my heart,” she added.
Her brother-in-law, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), also criticized Trump Monday, writing on Twitter that the president is pursuing a “heartless policy” and using the family separations as a negotiating tool with Congress.
Meanwhile, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) called what had transpired “ugly and inhumane” — and urged Congress to act.
“Enough finger pointing. Time for action and solutions,” he said in a statement.
During an interview Monday with “Fox & Friends,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley argued that a comprehensive immigration bill could have passed last year if Democrats had been more willing to compromise with Trump.
Instead, he suggested, Democrats were willing to shut down the government to try to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the initiative spearheaded by President Barack Obama to give temporary protection to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
“The Democrats decided to stand with people who are here illegally and unlawfully by the hundreds of thousands as opposed to hundreds of million of American citizens,” Gidley said. “They’re doing it again. They’re playing politics with people’s lives. They’re doing it on the backs of children. It’s absolutely grotesque.”
A Quinnipiac poll released Monday found that 27 percent of registered voters support and 66 percent oppose the Trump administration practice of immediately prosecuting parents who cross the border to seek asylum and separating them from their children.
Despite the lopsided opposition overall, 55 percent of Republicans support the policy. Support drops to 24 percent among independents and 7 percent among Democrats.
Mark Berman, Scott Clement, Seung Min Kim and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.