As the House of Representatives prepares for expected votes on major reforms to U.S. immigration law this week, the Trump administration defends the separation of some undocumented immigrant children from their parents,
Once a rare practice, federal agents now routinely separate families seeking asylum or attempting to enter the United States illegally. Roughly 2,000 minors had been separated from their families over a six-week period ending in May, administration officials said last week.
Video released by the U.S. government shows what appears to be humane conditions at a shelter site for children. But furor over the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for unauthorized border arrivals is growing.
Over the weekend, several protests were held across the country as lawmakers, religious leaders and American citizens decried the family separation policy.
Democratic Texas state Congressman Beto O’Rourke led hundreds of people on a march Sunday in Tornillo, Texas, where the government is holding some of the children. The purpose of the march, he said, was to “help this country to make the right decision, and part of that is knowing what’s going on in the first place.”
Watch related video by VOA’s Michael Bowman:
O’Rourke, who is seeking to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, was joined by U.S. Congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, also a Democrat.
Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, also spoke out against the policy.
“It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit,” he said on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Miami (Florida) Archbishop Thomas Wenski said, “The policy is designed to frighten the parents by taking away their kids, traumatizing the kids. And they [federal agents] think that will serve as a deterrent for people exercising a basic human right, which is to ask for asylum.”
Even first lady Melania Trump released a statement that appeared to oppose her husband’s policy.
“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” her office Sunday said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
But Trump continues to view America’s immigration debate through the lens of public safety, often pointing to foreign-born members of a vicious Central American gang.
And his advisers, both past and present, continue to defend the policy.
“Nobody likes” breaking up families and “seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms,” said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president. But she placed the blame on the Democrats.
Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, also defended the policy saying, “We ran on a policy, very simply, stop mass illegal immigration and limit legal immigration, get our sovereignty back, and to help our workers, OK? And so he went to a zero-tolerance policy.”
Immigration experts and many legal scholars, however, said the administration is interpreting U.S. immigration law as no other administration has. Democrats have condemned both the policy and Trump’s rationale for pursuing it.
“In the world, there is a recognition that people can seek asylum, except, apparently not in the United States,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said.
Emotions are also being stoked as the House of Representatives prepares to vote this week on two competing Republican immigration reform bills.
“We said from the beginning we want the House to debate immigration reform in a serious, meaningful way. And it looks like that is happening for the first time in nearly a decade,” Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo said.
Both bills would provide legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to America 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.
Trump is to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss the proposed legislation.
Also Sunday, officials say at least five people died after an SUV fleeing Border Patrol agents crashed in southern Texas.
Texas public safety officials said many people in the vehicle might have been living in the U.S. without legal permission. The driver and at least one other person, believed to be U.S. citizens, are in custody, the state officials said.
VOA’s Michael Bowman contributed to this report.