A demonstrator holds a sign during a Families Belong Together rally in Los Angeles, California, U.S. (Photographer: Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg)

Trump Tries to Blame Democrats as DHS Defends Family Separation

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump blamed Democrats’ opposition to legislation that would curb legal immigration for his administration’s policy of separating child migrants from their parents at the Mexican border and said he would not allow the U.S. to become a “migrant camp.”

Trump 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.

There is no law requiring children to be taken from parents apprehended after unlawfully crossing the border. The Trump administration adopted the policy in April and could stop it at any time. Neither Democrat Barack Obama nor Republican George W. Bush followed the practice during their presidencies.

“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.”

‘Will Not Apologize’

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen earlier said the administration wouldn’t apologize for splitting apart families at the border.

Nielsen suggested that some immigrants illegally entering the U.S. with children are not in fact families, and that those seeking asylum should go to official ports of entry instead of crossing the border unlawfully.

“We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family,” she said in a speech to the National Sheriff’s Association in New Orleans. “We have to do our job; we will not apologize for doing our job.”

Her comments appeared to contradict a tweet over the weekend in which she denied the administration had a policy of separating families at the border.

Criticism of Trump’s “zero tolerance” approach toward border crossings expanded rapidly over the weekend. Former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican who challenged Trump’s nomination in 2016 and may do so again in 2020, said “we need to forcefully take a stand against this policy” in a fundraising solicitation.

“We can secure our borders without taking actions that are morally wrong and shameful,” Kasich said.

Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote in an op-ed published by the Washington Post late Sunday that Trump’s policy was “cruel” and “immoral,” and current First Lady Melania Trump -- herself an immigrant -- said in a statement on Sunday that her husband’s administration should “govern with heart.”

Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, amplified Bush’s criticism by each retweeting her remarks. “Sometimes truth transcends party,” Michelle Obama wrote.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, speaking at an event in New York, called Trump’s efforts to blame Democrats for the policy “an outright lie.”

“It is incumbent on all of us, journalists and citizens alike, to call it just that,” she said.

Democrats at Border

Several prominent Democrats spent Father’s Day crisscrossing the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to meet with U.S. border authorities and tour detention centers for apprehended children, including a former Walmart Inc. store that’s been converted into a shelter for almost 1,500 immigrant boys.

The delegation to McAllen, Texas, was led by Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Merkley hasn’t ruled out running for president in 2020, while Van Hollen is in charge of Senate Democrats’ 2018 campaign committee.

“What the president has discovered is this policy, which he put in place six weeks ago, is creating an uproar among the American people,” Van Hollen said in an interview in Brownsville, Texas. “This is something that transcends politics. This is about moms and dads imagining their children being taken from them.”

Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration, joined protesters outside a border patrol processing center in McAllen, where temperatures hit 97F (36C) at mid-afternoon.

“It amounts essentially to state-sponsored child abuse that is traumatizing young children by taking them away from their parents, not letting them know when they’re going to see their parents again, keeping them in conditions that we wouldn’t want any of our children in,” Castro said in an interview outside the border patrol center. He, too, is considered a potential 2020 presidential contender.

Deterring Migration

Trump administration officials say the policy is intended to deter undocumented immigrants from making the trek to the U.S. border with their children. But the president has repeatedly blamed Democrats, citing unspecified law.

White House officials are unable to cite any part of U.S. law that dictates the separations, which were initiated in April after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced “zero tolerance” for unlawful border crossings. Adults apprehended after crossing the border outside an official port of entry are to be arrested and prosecuted under Sessions’ decree, which leads to their children being removed.

Previously, border authorities often issued notices to appear in court to families apprehended crossing the border who claimed asylum, then released them. Trump has derided that practice as “catch and release,” arguing that many of the immigrants never appear for court proceedings.

The administration and some Republican lawmakers have pointed to a 1997 court settlement regarding the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody as legal justification of Sessions’ new policy.

Political Leverage

The U.S. separated about 1,995 children from their parents and detained them between mid-April and May 31, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said Sunday the number “may well be higher.”

On Friday, Trump hinted in a tweet that the policy is intended as political leverage to force Democratic lawmakers to agree to changes to immigration law containing elements they oppose, including the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda,” Trump said on Twitter. “Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!”

In Texas, Merkley said at a news conference that “hurting kids to get legislative leverage is unacceptable. It is evil.”

Democrats have refused to consent to the border wall or restrictions to legal immigration Trump has demanded, and instead hope to block family separations with standalone legislation. California Senator Dianne Feinstein has the support of the 48 other senators who caucus with Democrats for a bill in her chamber, she said on Twitter.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.