The criticism of the Trump administration policy separating migrant children from their parents at the border, which had been slowly building over the past weeks, blew up over the weekend, after Democratic lawmakers made a surprise visit to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center and after Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas led a march to a tent city for migrant children. Other reports surfaced of frightened and distressed children being held in “cages.” (The Trump administration has contested the use of the term, while admitting to it being technically correct.) And on Monday, protests of a speech by Jeff Sessions defending the policy led to conflicts with the police and several arrests, while outrage grew as we learned of Border Patrol agents joking about wailing children in their custody.
As the critics called for Trump to end the practice, Trump, predictably, became defensive and agitated, falsely blaming Democrats for the policy and demanding Congress “CHANGE THE LAWS!” in a tweet on Monday.
Trump, like some in his administration, has said that while he doesn’t like that children are being separated from their parents, the policy is necessary to deter criminals. “Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country,” he said in a Monday tweet. “Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”
A later, typo-ridden tweet from the president, after the policy came under further criticism: “It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder Security and Crime. Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!”
But while some aides and Republican legislators have echoed Trump, there have also been Republicans willing to take a stand for what they consider a basic humanitarian issue. Here, broken down by level of conviction, is an updated list of both Democrats and Republicans who are on record for or against the zero-tolerance policy that breaks up families at the border:
• Jeff Sessions. The attorney general has not wavered in his defense of the policy, certain in his belief that only the migrant parents can be blamed for illegally crossing the border and choosing to bring their children into a situation in which they will be taken away.
He also cited the Bible in his defense. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
He has also maintained that the policy protects the country from gang violence. “These are people, children, young people that came without adults and their parents. Coming through our borders. Which has led to a resurgence of the violent MS-13 gang terrorizing high schools and even middle schools in Maryland and Long Island.”
• Sarah Huckabee Sanders: In a back-and-forth with reporters on Thursday, the White House press secretary said it was “very biblical to enforce the law.”
• Ted Cruz: “When you see reporters, when you see Democrats saying, ‘Don’t separate kids from their parents,’ what they’re really saying is don’t arrest illegal aliens.’” It was later reported that Cruz was planning to introduce emergency legislation to keep the families together. (Update, June 19, 12:30 p.m.: Here’s how Cruz’s proposal would work.)
• Steve Bannon: “I don’t think you have to justify it,” he told ABC on Sunday.
Fake News/Necessary Evil Defense
• Kirstjen Nielsen: The secretary of homeland security first argued that there was no policy that separated children from their parents. Later, she defended the policy, describing it as ugly but necessary to upholding the law. Ignoring the potential dangers of undocumented families was a “luxury,” she said.
Timid Partial Defense
• Melania Trump: “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 said in a statement. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
• Kellyanne Conway: “As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has a conscience … I will tell you that nobody likes this policy,” she told NBC’s Meet the Press. “Nobody likes seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms, from their mothers’ wombs, frankly, but we have to make sure that DHS’ laws are understood through the soundbite culture that we live in.”
• Sens. Susan Collins and Jeff Flake: Collins and Flake sent a letter to Nielsen and the Health and Human Services Department asking for “clarification” about the situation. But Collins also told Face the Nation that separating children from their parents is “traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country.”
• Mitt Romney: “I agree that we need a more compassionate answer.”
• Laura Bush: “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel,” the former first lady wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.” She also compared the policy to Japanese internment during World War II.
• Michael Hayden: The former CIA director tweeted a photo of the Birkenau concentration camp with the caption “Other governments have separated mothers and children.” He told CNN later that he was warning to be “careful not to move in that direction,” not comparing current Trump policies to the Holocaust.
• Sen. Ben Sasse: The Republican from Nebraska wrote in a lengthy Facebook post, “Family separation is wicked. It is harmful to kids and absolutely should NOT be the default U.S. policy. Americans are better than this.” He said he was working on a “possible solution.”
• Sen. Lindsey Graham: The Republican from South Carolina called on Trump to end the policy on an appearance on CNN. “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call,” he said. “I’ll go tell him. If you don’t like families’ being separated, you can tell DHS, ‘Stop doing it.’”
• Jeb Bush: “Children shouldn’t be used as a negotiating tool,” Bush tweeted. “[Trump] should end this heartless policy and Congress should get an immigration deal done that provides for asylum reform, border security and a path to citizenship for Dreamers.”
• Hillary Clinton: In a Twitter thread calling the family separations a “humanitarian crisis,” Clinton, perhaps responding to Sessions, quoted the Bible: “Those who selectively use the Bible to justify this cruelty are ignoring a central tenet of Christianity,” she wrote. “Jesus said ‘Suffer the little children unto me.’ He did not say ‘let the children suffer.’”
• Sen. Kamala Harris: The California Democrat released a statement calling on Nielsen to resign. “The government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing them apart,” she said. “And the government should have a commitment to transparency and accountability. Under Secretary Nielsen’s tenure, the Department of Homeland Security has a track record of neither. As a result, she must resign.”
• Anthony Scaramucci: The former White House communications director has been surprisingly vocal about the policy, which he has called “inhumane” and “atrocious.” He called for congressional immigration reform, but he also called the Trump administration out for inconsistent defenses made for the policy. “You can’t simultaneously argue that family separation isn’t happening, that it’s being used as a deterrent, that the Bible justifies it and that it’s @TheDemocrats fault,” he said on Twitter. “[The president] is not being served well by his advisors on this issue.”
• John McCain: In a tweet, McCain called on the administration to undo the policy: “The administration’s current family separation policy is an affront to the decency of the American people, and contrary to principles and values upon which our nation was founded. The administration has the power to rescind this policy. It should do so now.”
Update, June 19 at 11:30 a.m.: The U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, criticized the policy on Monday as “unconscionable” and compared it to child abuse. It was the latest point of tension surrounding the U.S. threat to withdraw from the Human Rights Council.
Update, June 19 at 12 p.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from John McCain.