Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday attended a contentious White House press briefing, where she defended the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy, which has resulted in the separation of thousands of children and their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border," Nielsen told reporters. Yet the Trump administration, she said, "will separate those who claim to be parent and child if we cannot determine that a familial or custodial relationship exists."
It was not immediately clear how Customs and Border Patrol agents would determine custodial relationships for children who did not possess identification documents.
Nielsen vehemently denied that the family separation amounts to a "policy," asking a reporter, "Why would I ever create a policy that purposely does this?"
Nielsen also denied that the thousands of children impacted by the separations are being used as leverage to force Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. "Children are not being used as a pawn," Nielsen said. "We are trying to protect the children."
Yet at the same time, Nielsen said President Donald Trump will not change the current policy because, she said, the president "wants to find a long term fix" on immigration -- essentially admitting that the current situation is being used as leverage to force Congress to act on other immigration proposals, such as Trump's border wall.
The Trump administration has ordered federal prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against all adults who enter the country illegally, regardless of whether those adults are traveling with children. Adults apprehended with their children are being separated, with the minors being placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Nielsen's remarks were her second of the day, and followed a weekend during which photographs emerged from detention centers that showed children sleeping on the floor inside wire cages, with only Mylar blankets.
The worsening situation for immigrant families has drawn condemnation across the board, from doctors' groups, religious leaders, and even former first lady Laura Bush, who called the separation of families "immoral."
"It's disgraceful," Franklin Graham, the prominent evangelical pastor, said on Tuesday. An outspoken Trump supporter, Graham told the Christian Broadcasting Network, "It's terrible to see families ripped apart and I don't support that one bit."
Several Republicans in Congress have also come out against the policy, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who said on Thursday he opposes separating undocumented immigrant families.
The president went back and forth over the weekend, at times defending the policy and at other times seeming to disown it.
Yet even as Trump held up the policy as evidence of his administration's tough stance on immigration, he simultaneously blamed congressional Democrats for it. And Trump himself called the separation of families "so, so sad," during an event Monday.