WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump defended an administration policy that has seen almost 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border, amid increased media coverage that included images of kids housed in indoor warehouse spaces behind chain-link fences.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, appearing in the White House briefing room, told reporters that the problem was loopholes in the law that prevented the ability to detain full family units.
“Those who criticize the implementation of our laws offer only one countermeasure — open borders,” she said, adding that there is a “lot of misinformation” as to what the Department of Homeland Security is doing.
“This is a very serious issue that has resulted after years and years of Congress not taking action,” she said.
Four former first ladies have condemned the policy, the most recent being Rosalynn Carter, who called it “disgraceful and a shame to our country.”
Trump gave no indication that he was taking steps to end the policy.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and will not be a refugee-holding facility,” Trump said at the White House, while he again tried to cast blame on Democrats, claiming that they are “obstructing.”
In fact, the separation of children from their parents was triggered when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy in which all of those who illegally enter the U.S. are charged and then prosecuted. That in turn led to the separation of the children from their parents, as is policy for those who face felony misdemeanors.
“We need borders. We need security. We need safety. We have to take care of our people,” Trump said, as he called for a merit-based immigration policy and warned that those who sneak across the border “could be murderers and thieves and so much else.”
The issue has gotten substantial coverage in the media in recent weeks, and late-night hosts have chimed in on it. Samantha Bee was making a point about it last month when she referred to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, with a sexual expletive. She later apologized. Last week, Stephen Colbert did an extended segment that called out the administration for using “cruelty as a deterrent.”
Over the weekend, more reporters got access to detention facilities and networks were able to broadcast images of what was happening. Gayle King was there for “CBS This Morning” on Monday and Lester Holt will anchor from McAllen, Texas, on Monday evening. ProPublica obtained audio of children from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, and some reporters listened to it in the briefing room before Nielsen’s press conference.
Former First Lady Laura Bush, who rarely comments on divisive political issues, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Sunday. “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 wrote. Carter, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton followed with their own critical comments
Clinton said in a speech, “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children suffer onto me. He did not say, ‘Let the little children suffer.'”
First Lady Melania Trump’s spokeswoman issued a statement to CNN on Sunday in which she said that the first lady “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle 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.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called on Nielsen to resign, saying “under her watch, our government has committed human rights abuses by breaking up families along the southern border. And she has failed to be accountable to and transparent with the American people.”
Nielsen, however, said that the children “are not being used as a pawn. We are trying to protect the children.”
She continued to insist that the administration is merely enforcing the law, even resisting the idea that they have the discretion to keep families together, or that they are using the crisis to serve as a deterrent so more families do not show up at the border to gain entry into the United States.
“Why would I ever create a policy that purposely does this?” she said.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny asked her, “How is it not specifically child abuse for these innocent children who are indeed being separated from their parents?”
Nielsen said that the “vast majority” of the total number of children under the supervision of federal officials — about 10,000 of 12,000 — were sent to the border area without their parents.
Zeleny pressed her again, asking her about reports of family separation. “I am not in a position to deal with hearsay stories,” she said.
After Nielsen’s remarks to the media, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) issued a statement in which she said that it was “not acceptable” to “blame previous administrations for a wrong committed today.”
“The time is now for the White House to end the cruel, tragic separations of families,” she said.