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story.lead_photo.caption White House counselor Kellyanne Conway attends a news conference with President Donald Trump and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — A top White House adviser on Sunday distanced the Trump administration from responsibility for separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-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.

President Donald Trump has tried to blame Democrats, who hold no levers of power in the government today, 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," said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president.

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. U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.

The administration wants to send a message, said a Republican critic of the policy, "that if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you. That's traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country."

Maine Sen. Susan Collins added that "we know from years of experience that we need to fix our immigration laws and that using children is not the answer."

Trump plans to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss pending immigration legislation amid an election-season debate over an issue that helped vault the New York real estate mogul into the Oval Office in 2016. 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 the White House has endorsed.

Conway rejected the idea that Trump was using the kids 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!"

To Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., 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 called the practice "deeply unethical" and said Republicans' refusal to criticize Trump represented a "sad degeneration" of the GOP, which he said had become "the party of lies."

Conway, however, put the onus on Democrats, saying if there are serious about overhauling the system, "they'll come together again and try to close these loopholes and get real immigration reform."

Asked whether the president was willing to end the policy, she said: "The president is ready to get meaningful immigration reform across the board."

More directly, Rep. Ben Ray Lujon, D-N.M., said Trump "could pick up the phone and stop it today."

The House proposals face broad opposition from Democrats, and even if a bill does pass, the closely divided Senate seems unlikely to go along.

Rep. Michael McCaul, who helped write the conservative version with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, said he had spoken to Trump on Saturday and that the president "is fully committed to both of these bills. He's put the full weight of his office behind it."

McCaul, R-Texas, said both bills satisfy Trump's main objectives.

"Without him coming to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, I don't think we'd have that sort of maximum pressure, if you will, to get us across the goal line, and I anticipate on Tuesday that he's going to be the leader he is and we're going to get something passed out of the House," said McCaul, R-Texas.

Trump's former chief strategist said Republicans would face steep consequences for pushing the compromise bill because it provides a path to citizenship for young "Dreamer" immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Steve Bannon argued that effort risked alienating Trump's political base and contributing to election losses in November, when Republicans hope to preserve their congressional majorities.

"I strongly recommend that we just wait until 2019, right, to address this," he said, while defending the administration's practice of separating parents from children as an example of Trump making good on a key campaign promise.

"We ran on a policy, very simply, stop mass illegal immigration and limit legal immigration, get our sovereignty back, and to help our workers, OK? And so he went to a zero tolerance policy," Bannon said. "Zero tolerance, it's a crime to come across illegally, and children get separated,."

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, said he was working on legislation that would end the practice of family separation.

Speaking from Texas, where he was leading a march to a town where a new tent structure for children recently opened, O'Rourke said "we can do the right thing by this country and for those kids, and not do it at the price of a 2,000-mile, 30-foot-high, $30 billion wall, not doing it at the price of deporting people who are seeking asylum, deporting people in some cases back to certain death, not doing it at the cost of ending family migration, which is the story of this country."

The situation now is "inhumane" and "un-American," he said. The blame, he said, rests "on all of us, not just the Trump administration."

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  • condoleezza
    June 17, 2018 at 2:43 p.m.

    Okay, so it's a crime. Fair enough. What is not fair is inflicting "cruel and unusual punishment" for any crime, let alone those of the non-violent variety. Truly, our country has lost track of that concept.

  • mozarky2
    June 17, 2018 at 3:46 p.m.

    How well I recall the outrage of you "progs" when Obama started this...oh...wait...
    doggod, the parents were placed in an adult holding facility for illegal activity. Children are NEVER placed in an adult holding facility under any circumstances! The parents knew what would happen when committed the B&E!
    What is wrong with the thought processes of you "progs"?

  • 23cal
    June 17, 2018 at 4:10 p.m.

    I see Trump reached the "I don't want to hit the children, you make me hit the children when you don't do as I want" chapter in the handbook for abusive husbands.

    They use the "breaking the law" schtick as justification for political terrorism. You know, as if tearing families apart is the only possible answer for "breaking the law". Illegal immigration is a misdemeanor. Jaywalking is a misdemeanor. Can you imagine taking someone's child for jaywalking? This is how absurd the ones making that argument are. I"m surprised they aren't calling for these children and their parents to gassed in a final solution to the immigration problem because for them the most horrid consequences for the most minor crimes is desirable.
    The lack of humanity and the dishonesty is deplorable. At least most of the church leaders have come out against this.......not that that makes any difference to the most xenophobically virulent of their membership.

  • mozarky2
    June 17, 2018 at 4:28 p.m.

    Better find yourself a fainting couch, 23.
    You're getting as bad as RBear when you perpetuate the stereotype of the hysterical, overwrought, and drama queen gay man.

    June 17, 2018 at 5:28 p.m.

    Even the deacon at St. Andrew's Cathedral condemned from the pulpit today the GOP policy which is tearing apart migrant families. Pleasantly surprised.

  • condoleezza
    June 17, 2018 at 7:10 p.m.

    Jesus loves you, mozarky2.

  • PopMom
    June 17, 2018 at 7:31 p.m.

    The Obama policy of keeping children with their parents was far more humane. Children are terrified to be ripped from their parents. The Arkansas Democrats running for Congress need to jump on the Republicans over this.

  • RBear
    June 17, 2018 at 9:48 p.m.

    moz if you had half a brain you would do the research on the shift in policy by the DOJ under Sessions that created this issue. There is no law that forces this issue. It's brought on by the fact the DOJ classifies asylum seekers as criminal BEFORE their case is investigated. A person is NOT a criminal when seeking asylum.
    BTW, 23cal is not acting like the drama queen here. The responses are rational and fact-based. You are the only one in here going off the BSC end of the pool. You always do. As I've said before, you are far too unstable to have a face to face with.

  • mozarky2
    June 18, 2018 at 4:23 a.m.

    The 1997 law that Mr. Clinton signed says minor children who enter the United States illegally must be separated from their parents who are sent to jail because they crossed the border illegally. Because children cannot accompany their parents to jail, they are separated and sent elsewhere, either shelters or foster homes.
    And now it's all of a sudden unacceptable, right?

  • RBear
    June 18, 2018 at 6:48 a.m.

    ROTFL @ moz. So name the "law" that states that. I can't wait to see how LITTLE research you've done on this. Tell me what "law" Clinton signed. You JUST showed your ignorance on this issue which further shows how issue illiterate the Trump demographic REALLY is.