Donald Trump’s homeland security chief and his Attorney General have said the administration “will not apologise” for the policy of splitting up migrant families at the border as the president declared the US "will not be a migrant camp".
The "zero tolerance" policy at the border, with means all cases of adult illegal entry are sent for criminal prosecution, has led to the separation of parents and children and sparked a nationwide backlash.
Defending the approach Mr Trump reiterated the importance of border security. “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility... not on my watch," he said.
Before Mr Trump's remarks and less than 24 hours after she insisted the government did not have a policy of separating youngsters from their parents, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen backed the policy.
“We have to do our job. We will not apologise for doing our job,” she said, speaking in New Orleans to the National Sheriffs’ Association. “This administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.”
Ms Nielsen’s doubling down on the government’s policy came as Mr Trump has faced growing criticism for his a new immigration policy announced in May by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who also addressed the police officers.
Mr Sessions said the government "will not encourage migrants to bring children". He said if Mr Trump was given the funding he has requested for construction of a border wall, the problem of illegal immigration would be reduced and officials would not be confronted by "terrible choices" such as splitting up families.
According to Mr Sessions' policy, which was backdated to April, anybody stopped entering the country illegally would be criminally charged, even if they were seeking asylum. The criminal charging of parents means they are usually separated from their children.
Mr Trump has faced a growing criticism for the new hardline approach, which was reportedly pushed by his right wing policy adviser Stephen Miller. In addition to criticism from the Democrats and social activists, Mr Trump has been condemned by a number of Republican politicians and a large number of members of the clergy.
On Monday, the United Nations’ top human rights official added his voices to the criticism. Speaking at the opening of a Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged the US authorities to end the policy that has seen almost 2,000 children taken from their families in the past six weeks.
“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” said Mr Hussein
As images have emerged of the youngsters in tent camps and holding facilities made up of cages, groundswell of opposition to the policy has increased. Over the weekend, Mr Trump’s own wife, First Lady Melania Trump, said she “hates to see children separated from their families”.
Meanwhile former first lady Laura Bush, whose husband sought to agree a deal on immigration reform when he was president, wrote an article for the Washington Post in which she voiced a rare public criticism of a man her family is known to be at adds with.
“I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” she wrote.
Mr Trump, who is due to visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss two possible immigration bills, has claimed, inaccurately, the policy was established by the previous administration and he can do nothing about it without the cooperation of Democrats to completely overhaul immigration. Critics say Mr Trump is seeking to use the children as leverage as he seeks to push legislators to provide funds to pay for a border wall.
While some children were separated by their families during the administrations of Barack Obama and George Bush, last month Mr Sessions announced that officials would start prosecuting all people who tried to cross the border illegally. The new approach meant the Department of Justice would prosecute everyone crossing, even those seeking to make asylum claims.
Meanwhile, as he again sought to blame the democrats for the steps being taken by his own administration, Mr Trump took time to attack Angela Merkel of Germany, who has faced dissent from members of her political coalition over her policy of welcoming migrants and asylum seekers, particularly those from countries such as Syria.
“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” he said, adding incorrectly that crime had increased in the country.
“Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture! We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us.”
Ms Merkel’s open-door migrant policy is widely blamed for the rise of the right-wing AfD, now the main opposition party in Germany’s federal parliament. More than 1.6m migrants, mostly Muslims fleeing wars in the Middle East, have arrived in Germany since 2014.
Yet, Reuters said contrary to Mr Trump’s assertion, crime has fallen off dramatically in Germany, with the country’s internal ministry reporting last month that criminal offenses in Germany totaled 5.76m in 2017, the lowest number since 1992, leading to the lowest crime rate for the country in more than 30 years.
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