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 FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (Ariz.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Schumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget 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 SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases 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 TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party 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 ConwayAides who clashed with Giuliani intentionally gave him wrong time for Trump debate prep: book 7 conservative women who could replace Meghan McCain on 'The View' Karen Pence confirms move back to Indiana: 'No place like home' 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 TrumpAzar regrets Trump didn't get vaccinated on national TV Only Trump can fix vaccine hesitancy among his supporters Trump discussed pardoning Ghislaine Maxwell: book 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-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' 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 RyanTo cut poverty and solve the labor shortage, enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans RealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump 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 FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children 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 GoodlatteThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden 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 SchiffA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign Officers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe 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 HurdFirst Democrat jumps into key Texas House race to challenge Gonzales Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Congress drawn into pipeline cyberattack, violence in Israel 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.