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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 FlakeTrump boosts McSally, bashes Sinema in Arizona Watch live: Trump speaks at Arizona rally Mnuchin to attend anti-terror meeting in Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi disappearance MORE (Ariz.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia Conservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns 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 SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure 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 John TrumpFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate GOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Gorbachev calls Trump's withdrawal from arms treaty 'a mistake' 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 ConwayTrump and Kellyanne Conway's husband spar about columnist Hatch mocks Warren over DNA test with his own results showing '1/1032 T-Rex' Conway responds to Warren DNA test: 'Junk science' that 'really doesn't interest me' 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 TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump seizes on immigrant 'caravan' for midterms | WHCA criticizes Trump for praising lawmaker who assaulted reporter | Trump takes harder line on Saudis CNN's Acosta sends private message to former Melania Trump aide: 'F--- you' Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns 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 NielsenEx-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials Migrant caravan expands to 5000 DHS to 'closely monitor' caravan of migrants headed for US border 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 RyanPelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa 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 FeinsteinDurbin to Trump: ‘We’re the mob? Give me a break’ Sen. Walter Huddleston was a reminder that immigration used to be a bipartisan issue GOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump's court picks 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 GoodlatteRosenstein to appear for House interview next week Fusion GPS co-founder pleads the Fifth following House GOP subpoena House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein 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 SchiffLawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi's death Schiff predicts Trump will accept Saudi denials of involvement in Khashoggi's death Schiff suggests Trump has 'financial motives' that influence Saudi Arabia policy 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 HurdO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach Dems struggle to mobilize Latino voters for midterms 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.