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.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Monday that seeking to deter parents by inflicting abuse on children is "unconscionable."
"Mr. President, people do not lose their human rights by virtue of crossing a border without a visa," Zeid said. "I deplore the adoption by many countries of policies intended to make themselves as inhospitable as possible by increasing the suffering of many already vulnerable people."
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 as he seeks stricter policies.
The president has also repeatedly blamed Democrats for the separations, falsely claiming they are responsible for the situation. Trump's administration put in place the policy to arrest all migrants who illegally cross the U.S. border, including those seeking asylum, and because children cannot be sent to the same detention facilities as their parents, they are separated.
"The Democrats should get together with their Republican counterparts and work something out on Border Security & Safety," Trump tweeted late Sunday. "Don't wait until after the election because you are going to lose!"
Trump's Republican party holds a majority in both houses of Congress.
He is scheduled to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss two competing Republican immigration reform bills.
Both bills would provide legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States 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.
"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.
Trump's advisers, both past and present, also continue to defend the separation policy.
"Nobody likes'' breaking up families and "seeing babies ripped from their mothers' arms,'' said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president. But she, too, 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.
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.”
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."
Former first lady Laura Bush wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the policy is cruel and immoral."
"Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso," she said. "These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese interment camps of World War 2, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history."
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.