A top White House adviser has distanced the Trump administration from responsibility for separating migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border, even though the administration put in place and could easily end a policy that has led to a spike in cases of split and distraught families.
US President Donald Trump has tried to blame the Democrats, who hold no levers of power in the government, for a situation that has sparked fury and a national debate over the moral implications of his hard-line approach to immigration enforcement.
"Nobody likes" breaking up families and "seeing babies ripped from their mothers' arms," Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to the president, said on Sunday.
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new "zero-tolerance" policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. US protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.
Republican critic of the policy and Maine Senator Susan Collins says the administration wants to send a message "that if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you. That's traumatising to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country."
Trump plans to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss pending immigration legislation. The House is expected to vote this week on a bill pushed by conservatives that may not have enough support to pass, and a compromise measure that includes key proposals supported by the president. The White House has indicated Trump would sign either of those.
Conway rejected the idea that Trump was using children as leverage to force Democrats to negotiate on immigration and his long-promised border wall, even after Trump tweeted Saturday: "Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!"
Republican Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the administration is "using the grief, the tears, the pain of these kids as mortar to build our wall. And it's an effort to extort a bill to their liking in the Congress."
Schiff said the practice was "deeply unethical" and that Republicans' refusal to criticise Trump represented a "sad degeneration" of the GOP, which he said had become "the party of lies."
"There are other ways to negotiate between Republicans and Democrats. Using children, young children, as political foils is abhorrent," said Sen Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island.
Even first ladies past and present gave their viewpoints.
Melania Trump, who has tended to stay out of contentious policy debates, waded into the emotional issue. Her spokeswoman says that Mrs. Trump believes "we need to be a country that follows all laws," but also one "that governs with heart."
"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," spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.
Former first lady Laura Bush wrote in a guest column in The Washington Post that the policy is "cruel," "immoral" and "it breaks my heart" and compared it to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.