(Bloomberg) -- Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called on Congress to change laws she said force the government to separate immigrant children from parents who cross the U.S. border unlawfully and called Democrats who say the Trump administration is using the controversy for political leverage “very cowardly.”
Nielsen both defended President Donald Trump’s family separation policy at a White House briefing on Monday and maintained that it wasn’t his creation, but rather a consequence of the government’s prosecution of immigrants apprehended illegally crossing the border.
“Parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals,” Nielsen said. “Here is the bottom line: DHS is no longer ignoring the law.”
Yet there is no law requiring children to be taken from parents apprehended after unlawfully crossing the border. The Trump administration adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward unlawful border crossings in April.
Nielsen said that previous administrations had also at times separated children from immigrant parents at the border, though “their rate was less than ours.”
“But they absolutely did this. This is not new,” she said. The Trump administration, she said, was engaging in the practice more frequently because U.S. law forbids the government from detaining “family units” apprehended while crossing the border for longer than 20 days.
Her news conference punctuated a day in which Trump and Nielsen each struggled to defend the separation of immigrant children from their parents against mounting bipartisan criticism. In Texas, several Democratic members of Congress said at a news conference that they had toured one U.S. detention center and encountered children under the age of one who they were told had been in government custody for more than a month.
Southwest Key, the nonprofit that administers the detention center for the government, referred questions to the Administration for Children and Families. The agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The White House repeatedly pushed back Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ scheduled briefing for reporters, first from 1:15 p.m. New York time to 3:30 p.m., then to 4:00. At 4:30, with reporters in their seats waiting to ask questions, Sanders said in an e-mail that the briefing would be at 5:00 and she would be joined by Nielsen, who returned to Washington from New Orleans.
Nielsen described a crisis on the southwest U.S. border, where she said illegal crossings exceed 50,000 people a month -- “multiples over each month last year.” Authorities have observed a 325 percent increase in crossings by unaccompanied children and 435 percent increase in crossings by families since this time last year. Asylum claims have surged 1,700 percent in the last decade, she said, creating a backlog of 600,000 cases.
CNN and Quinnipiac University each released polls on Monday showing that two-thirds of Americans oppose Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for border crossings that has led to children being taken from their parents. But both organizations also found that a majority of Republicans support the policy.
ProPublica published a recording it said was made last week in a U.S. detention center in which 10 Central American children can be heard crying for their mothers and fathers. One unidentified Border Patrol agent remarks, “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”
Nielsen said she’s “not in any position to deal with hearsay stories. If someone has a specific allegation,” she said, “we will look into it. ”
Trump continued to blame Democrats, falsely, for a policy that even members of his own party said he could end with a single phone call.
The president said at a White House event on Monday that “all of the problems” the U.S. is having with immigration are “very strongly the Democrats’ fault.” He insisted again that his family separation policy was the consequence of “horrible laws” that the opposition party refused to agree to change.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump vowed. “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places; we can’t allow that to happen to the United States, not on my watch.”
Several Democrats have charged that Trump is attempting to use the children’s plight as leverage to force them to accept changes to immigration law they oppose, including construction of a wall on the Mexican border and curbing legal immigration.
“That’s a very cowardly response,” Nielsen said. “It’s clearly within their power to make the laws and change the laws. They should do so.”
After denying that the family separation policy existed in a tweet on Sunday, Nielsen defended it in a speech earlier on Monday in New Orleans and said border authorities “will not apologize for doing our job.” People seeking asylum in the U.S., she said, should go to official ports of entry instead of crossing the border illegally.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, both called for Nielsen to resign after the speech.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement denying allegations by Democrats and immigrant advocates that it has made it difficult for people to apply for asylum at ports of entry. But it said that Customs and Border Patrol “must prioritize its limited resources to ensure its primary mission is being executed,” which it said does not include asylum petitions.
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