Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday defended her department's policies amid increasingly intense scrutiny over separating children from adults accused of illegally crossing the border.
Nielsen, in a speech to the National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans, said the children are provided food, medical attention, education and anything else they might need.
"We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job," she said. "This administration has a simple message — If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you."
Nielsen spoke hours after taking to Twitter to vehemently deny that her department's border policy dictates separation of children from their parents.
"We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period," Nielsen tweeted late Sunday. "For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between 'family' members, or if the adult has broken a law."
Nielsen stressed that families seeking asylum at border entries are not breaking the law.
"As I have said many times before, if you are seeking asylum for your family, there is no reason to break the law and illegally cross between ports of entry," she tweeted.
A new policy, unveiled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April, calls for "zero-tolerance" for immigrants who illegally enter the U.S. along the Mexican border. Sessions warned that violators would be met with "the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice."
Through the end of May, almost 2,000 children were separated from adults who said they were their parents or guardians, the department said last week.
Sessions also defended the Trump administration policy at the sheriff's event. He said the number of immigrants crossing with children increased sharply during the Obama administration.
“This cannot continue,” Sessions said. “We do not want to separate children from their parents. We do not want adults to bring children into this country unlawfully, placing them at risk.
But he said the administration must prosecute adults who "flout our laws" to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry.
"We cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws," he said. "If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices. We will have a system where those who need to apply for asylum can do so and those who want to come to this country will apply legally,” he said.
Republicans were tentatively planning to offer two bills this week in Congress, one that would sharply curtail legal immigration and a compromise measure, as yet not revealed, that could draw criticism from conservatives. President Trump on Monday tweeted a challenge to Democrats, saying they should back GOP immigration bills aimed at fixing "the world's worst immigration laws.
"Where is the outcry for the killings and crime being caused by gangs and thugs, including MS-13, coming into our country illegally?" he added.
Trump cited Europe, and particularly Germany, for the "big mistake" of accepting millions of Middle Eastern refugees in recent years.
"The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up," Trump tweeted. "We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!"
But controversy over DHS treatment of families continues to heat up. Former first lady Laura Bush said that as a resident of a border state, she appreciates the need to protect the nation's boundaries.
"But this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral," Bush tweeted. "And it breaks my heart."
Earlier, first lady Melania Trump also weighed in through her communications director Stephanie Grisham. Melania Trump, Grisham told CNN on Sunday, "believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."
The policy has drawn global fury, with U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, on Monday urging the U.S. to halt the “unconscionable” policy.
Some Republicans have split with the administration on the issue. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the policy is "inconsistent with our American values," adding that "we need to fix our immigration laws, but using children is not the answer."
Even from some of Trump's strongest supporters have panned the policy. Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham, last week described the splitting up of families as "disgraceful."
“It’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit,” Graham told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson