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White House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies

The Trump administration appears poised for a fight over its practice of separating migrant families who cross the border illegally as a growing number of lawmakers voice concerns over it.

Democrats and some Republicans have in recent days visited facilities used to house separated family members, leading to new questions about the process and growing calls for the so-called zero tolerance immigration enforcement policy to end.

GOP Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Republican reactions to Cheney's removal Flake: No greater offense than honesty in today's Republican Party Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP MORE (Ariz.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting Senate votes to repeal OCC 'true lender' rule Top female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' MORE (Maine) wrote to the Homeland Security Department (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) Department on Saturday asking for clarity on the administration's practice of separating migrant families.

The letter cites multiple instances where families seeking asylum were separated, despite the administration's assurances that wasn't the case. The senators asked for details on when children are separated from their parents, what the purpose of doing so is, and how many children have been separated during the asylum claim process.

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"It is critical that Congress fully understands how our nation’s laws are being implemented on the ground, especially when the well-being of young children is at stake," the senators wrote.

Flake and Collins joined numerous congressional colleagues over the weekend in questioning or outright opposing the decision to separate migrant children from their parents. Democrats and Republicans have called the actions "inhumane," "abhorrent," and "inconsistent with our American values."

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors Biden fills immigration court with Trump hires Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE enacted the new immigration-enforcement policy earlier this year, announcing that the Department of Justice would criminally prosecute all adults attempting to illegally cross the southern border into the U.S. As a result, families who crossed together would be separated in some cases, he said.

Around 2,000 children have been separated from their families over the past six weeks, according to reports

President TrumpDonald TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal MORE, Sessions and other officials have defended the policy, saying it acts as a deterrent against illegal immigration.

Trump has blamed Democrats for the practice, despite the order coming from his own administration.

On Sunday, members of the White House acknowledged their distaste for the policy, even as the administration indicates it has no intention of unilaterally ending it.

“As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who’s got a conscience … I will tell you that nobody likes this policy,” White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayPence urges 'positive' agenda to counter Biden in first speech since leaving office Kellyanne Conway joins Ohio Senate candidate's campaign Mark Zuckerberg, meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau? MORE said on NBC’s “Meet the Press."

“Congress passed the law that it is a crime to enter this country illegally. So if they don’t like that law, they should change it,” she added. 

First lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpJill Biden a key figure in push to pitch White House plans Petition calls for Jill Biden to undo Trump-era changes to White House Rose Garden Fox News's Bret Baier posts vaccination selfie MORE, who rarely weighs in on policy matters, also appeared to oppose the family separation policy, though she did not call on the administration to end it and put the blame on Democrats as well as Republicans.

"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. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart," Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's communications director, said in a statement to The Hill.

Later on Sunday, DHS Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenLeft-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' House Republican condemns anti-Trump celebrities during impeachment hearing MORE mounted a defense of the administration's policies on Twitter, calling the actions of the media, activists and some members of Congress "irresponsible and unproductive."

"As I have said many times before, if you are seeking asylum for your family, there is no reason to break the law and illegally cross between ports of entry," Nielsen tweeted. "You are not breaking the law by seeking asylum at a port of entry."

She added that families seeking asylum at the border will only be separated under certain circumstances, such as if the child is deemed to be in danger or if the parent has broken the law.

"We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period," Nielsen wrote.

Trump himself also weighed in on Sunday, urging Democrats to work with Republicans to find a solution to border security before they "lose" in the midterms in November.

While many lawmakers are questioning the policy, there seems to be little agreement on a legislative solution.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only MORE (R-Wis.) said Thursday that he opposed the policy, urging Congress to draft legislation that would remedy the problem. At a press conference, Ryan told reporters he was uncomfortable with the growing number of migrant children being taken from their parents and detained in government-run facilities or foster care.

“This is because of a court ruling,” Ryan said. “We believe it should be addressed in immigration legislation. So what’s happening at the border with the separation of their parents and their children is because of a court ruling, and so that’s why I think legislation is necessary.”

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinIf you want Julie Su at the DOL, don't point to her resume Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' MORE (D-Calif.) has led the charge on a Democratic proposal that would would only allow children to be separated from a parent if they are being abused, trafficked or if a court decides "it is in the best interests of the child."

That legislation has drawn little bipartisan support, however. Collins called the measure "far too broad."

"That's not to say that we shouldn't act to try to curb illegal immigration. We should, and I support the president's proposals for border security," Collins said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"We do need to strengthen our security at the border," she continued. "But we know from years of experience that we need to fix our immigration laws and that using children is not the answer."

The House is expected to vote this week on two Republican immigration proposals. One is a more conservative bill authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteBottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself MORE (R-Va.), and the other is a more moderate measure proposed by centrist leaders.

It's unclear which proposal will earn more GOP support, but Democrats have already balked at the prospect of a legislative compromise on immigration reform.

"It's going to be very difficult to get a comprehensive immigration bill on an election year, on any year. So let's not tear these families apart in the meantime," Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDNC plans to project image calling GOP 'party of Trump' on his DC hotel after Cheney vote Democrats fundraise off of vote to remove Cheney from GOP leadership Free Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech MORE (D-Calif.) said on "Meet the Press."

While Congress struggles to come to an agreement on immigration policy, many have noted that ending the separation policy doesn't require such an unlikely effort.

"This is clearly something that the administration can change," Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Congress drawn into pipeline cyberattack, violence in Israel Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster Prince Harry joins Aspen Institute commission on misinformation MORE (R-Texas) told CNN.

"They don't need legislation to change it. They don't need Democrats in order to change it. This is a Department of Justice policy, and this is something that's being enacted by HHS."

Updated: 9:24 p.m.