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Backlash builds against Trump's policy splitting families at border, as he falsely blames Democrats

Video from inside the Border Patrol's controversial processing center in McAllen, Texas, during a media tour on June 17.

President Trump stood defiant Monday against a growing backlash over his administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy that since April has separated at least 2,000 children from their parents crossing the southern border, and he continued to falsely blame Democrats for the hard-line actions.

“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility," an indignant Trump said at the White House, adding, “Not on my watch.”

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“You take a look at the death and destruction that's been caused by people coming into this country, without going through a process,” the president told his audience, a meeting of his National Space Council.

Assailing Democrats for opposing his proposed immigration limits, he said Republicans "want safety and we want security for our country. If the Democrats would sit down, instead of obstructing, we could have something done very quickly.”

That the president felt compelled to make the remarks, at the unrelated space policy meeting, was a measure of the furor swirling around his policy after a Father's Day weekend of media coverage featuring images of children locked inside large metal cages, crying toddlers and distraught parents.

Some Republican allies in Congress, conservative religious leaders and former First Lady Laura Bush joined a chorus of critics lambasting the family-separation policy as “inhumane” and “immoral,” and comparing it to the internment of Japanese Americans and even Nazi camps during World War II.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, typically a Trump supporter, tweeted on Monday, “While I firmly support enforcing our immigration laws, I am against using parental separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration.” Another Republican, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, was harsher, rejecting Trump’s claims that only Congress could fix “this cruel policy.”

"Some in the administration have decided that this cruel policy increases their legislative leverage. This is wrong,” Sasse wrote on Facebook. “Americans do not take children hostage, period."

In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, rest in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas.
In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, rest in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Associated Press)

Trump is set to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday on pending immigration bills, which now have become possible vehicles for addressing the border plight. Yet the president, despite his claims that Congress must act, has the power to unilaterally reverse a policy that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, heralded in April, formally outlined in May and reinforced as recently as Monday.

As the Republican-controlled Congress nonetheless comes under pressure to act, it remains to be seen if the growing outrage over the policy will move the president. He has indicated in multiple tweets over recent days that he is using the policy -- which he, too, claims to hate -- as leverage to get Democrats to agree to limits on legal immigration as well as provide $25 billion for his promised border wall.

Some Republicans, especially in the House, have encouraged that strategy, as have some of Trump’s allies in conservative media. One, Ann Coulter, said on Fox, “These child actors, weeping and crying on all the other networks 24-7 right now -- Do not fall for it, Mr. President.”

Democrats, meanwhile, rallied around a bill sponsored by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, which would prohibit separating families unless agents suspect abuse or child-trafficking. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia on Monday became the last Democrat to endorse the measure, even as he is up for reelection in a state Trump carried overwhelmingly in 2016.

The president, in a series of tweets early Monday, shifted a bit from insisting the policy had been forced on his administration to implicitly defending the policy by pointing at Europe and suggesting immigrants are a detriment to the cultures of the nations there.

"Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!" he wrote.

Trump singled out Germany, claiming in one post that its openness to refugees had weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition — again breaking with the long-standing norm that world leaders stay out of the domestic politics of their ally-counterparts.

In a nod to his own domestic politics, Trump also tweeted, “Why don’t the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws?” That was followed by another, “CHANGE THE LAWS!”

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Rep. David Valadao, a California Republican whose Hanford district includes a majority Latino population, called on the administration to cease the policy until Congress finds a solution to what he called “a humanitarian and national security crisis,” referring to the increase in children crossing the border illegally amid growing gang- and drug-related violence in their countries.

In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a U.S. Border Patrol agent watches as people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, stand in line at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.
In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a U.S. Border Patrol agent watches as people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, stand in line at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP)

For all the controversy, Trump’s hard-line stance is in keeping with the promises that defined and helped propel his unlikely bid for the presidency from the start three years ago.

As president, he has pushed for stepped up immigration-enforcement efforts and the border wall, justifying it all by focusing on the violent crimes of immigrants, in particular MS-13 gang members with roots in El Salvador. He has ended an Obama-era policy temporarily protecting from deportation numerous young people who came to the country illegally as children — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA — though courts have blocked full repeal.

Not until recent days, however, as the news media and Democrats drew attention to the family separations, has Trump’s agenda provoked a possible political crisis for him and Republicans.

A Quinnipiac University national poll released Monday showed what little support he has — and how little pressure Democrats feel to give ground. American voters oppose the separation policy by a 66% to 27% margin, it found, with opposition across every age and demographic group except Republicans. Even their support, by 55% to 35%, is significantly narrower than Trump typically gets from his party.

Trump advisors including Kellyanne Conway over the weekend echoed Trump’s assignment of blame to Democrats, as part of the effort to pressure them for legislative concessions. Others, including Sessions, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and senior advisor Stephen Miller, have acknowledged that the administration imposed the zero-tolerance policy, after considering it since last year, in the belief that its harshness would serve as a deterrent for migrants.

And yet, reflecting the administration’s new defensiveness, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen falsely claimed in a tweet on Sunday that the administration "[does] not have a policy of separating families at the border."

In a statement citing that tweet, California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, called on Nielsen to resign.

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On Monday, Nielsen said the administration would not apologize for following what she said was the law, in comments at the National Sheriffs’ Assn. in New Orleans. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “there are some who would like us to look the other way… and not enforce the law.”

Nielsen insisted that children are being treated humanely and blamed the detention controversy on would-be immigrants’ abuse of the asylum system. Some adults, she said, were using children as a “get out of jail free card” because federal law limits the time children can be held in custody with their families.

She cited statistics showing asylum claims had risen dramatically, and said that some applicants have been coached to use “magic words” that trigger legal protections. Last week, the administration ruled out gang violence and domestic abuse as grounds for asylum, leaving many applicants without recourse. She called on Congress to further restrict the system to prevent abuse.

In the meantime, Nielsen said, the administration has a message: “If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.”

When Nielsen returned from New Orleans, the White House had her brief reporters in what turned into a contentious exchange. At one point she said, “Congress alone can fix it,” recalling Trump’s memorable remark in his 2016 nomination-acceptance speech: “I alone can fix it.”

Sessions, also speaking at the sheriffs’ conference, echoed her complaints that would-be immigrants are exploiting the asylum system to gain “effective immunity” if they have children with them.

He once again defined the separation policy as a deterrent, to protect children’s safety.

“These children are entering not in ports of entry, but in dangerous places, in deserts and crossing our fences,” he said. “We do not want to separate children from their parents. We do not want adults to bring children into this country unlawfully either, placing those children at risk.”

In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.
In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP)

Social media lighted up Sunday night after the Washington Post published an op-ed column by Laura Bush, the previous Republican first lady, in which she likened the treatment of immigrant children to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“I live in a border state,” Bush wrote. “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.”

Another former first lady, Rosalynn Carter, called it “disgraceful and a shame to our country" in a statement Monday.

That followed the more ambiguous statement Sunday from the current first lady, Melania Trump. Her spokeswoman told CNN that Trump “hates” the policy, yet by calling on “both sides” to compromise on broader “immigration reform,” the first lady seemed to endorse using the issue as legislative leverage.

Most vocal were the president’s critics, an almost unheard-of convergence of “Never-Trumpers” and Trump stalwarts.

Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director under President George W. Bush and a frequent Trump critic, posted a picture of a Nazi concentration camp on Twitter on Saturday and wrote, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.” The Rev. Franklin Graham, a Trump booster usually, called the family separations “disgraceful.”

Lorella Praeli, deputy national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, drew a parallel to the president’s chaotic back-and-forth on DACA policy — “where they break something and then hold children hostage to get something that they want.” This time, however, the “moral outrage” is greater, and growing, she said.

Foreign observers weighed in as well. Said the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”

Staff writer Jazmine Ulloa contributed to this report.

3:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with new reactions and developments.

10 a.m.: This article has been updated with new comments from Trump and Sessions.

This story was first published at 8:15 a.m.

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