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Pressure mounts for Trump to address family separations at border

Pressure rose on President Donald Trump on Sunday to clarify or change his administration’s policies toward separating families that enter the United States illegally — including from within his own home.

A spokeswoman for Melania Trump said Sunday that the first lady “hates to see children separated from their families” and hopes both parties can reach a solution.

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“She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart,” the statement said.

The first lady’s rare public comment on a policy issue came as Democrats have seized on the controversy, seeking access to facilities where the government is housing children. Two GOP lawmakers this weekend questioned Cabinet secretaries on whether people who present themselves at U.S. ports of entry and ask for asylum are being separated from their children.

The White House has continued to defend its policy as part of its “zero tolerance” approach to illegal immigration, and Trump has said that he would reverse the policy if Democrats would work with him to enact immigration-law changes. But the White House’s claims that it’s merely enforcing U.S. laws have been largely drowned out by a series of reports of children being taken away from their parents, leading to rising pressure on Trump to justify his administration’s actions.

“To literally take your and your child’s life into your hands and hope that you will make it here,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) told CNN on Sunday. “Once you get here to try to request asylum, only to find that your child will be taken from you.”

O’Rourke, who is trying to knock off Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) this fall, said he will march to Tornillo, Texas, one of the towns where children are being held. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who was denied entry to a detention center, a video of which went viral, returned to South Texas on Sunday with fellow Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and a bevy of other lawmakers.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona amped up the pressure, too, by sending letters to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar seeking to clarify the policy.

“Secretary Nielsen recently appeared before the U.S. Senate and testified that immigrant parents and children who present themselves at U.S. ports of entry to request asylum will not be separated. Despite Secretary Nielsen’s testimony, a number of media outlets have reported instances where parents and children seeking asylum at a port of entry have been separated,” the two senators wrote. “These accounts and others like them concern us.”

Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the Homeland Security department, denied that family separation for asylum seekers is a Trump administration policy and wrote on Twitter that “there are many false stories being reported” on the topic. DHS says that, in contrast to people who are apprehended entering the country illegally, those who present themselves at a port of entry asking for asylum are not separated as long as they aren’t in danger or at risk of human trafficking.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that it was “biblical to enforce the law,” even though Trump told reporters Friday that “I hate the children being taken away.”

Kellyanne Conway is pictured. | AP Photo

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday that “nobody” likes the practice of separating families but that Trump wanted to work on broader immigration measures.

“The president is ready to get meaningful immigration reform across the board,” Conway told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. “And Chuck, let me just tell you that 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 sound-bite culture that we live in.”

Aubree Eliza Weaver contributed to this report.

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