In an extraordinary intervention on the key issue of immigration, First Lady Melania Trump has released a statement that many commentators are seeing as an implicit criticism of her husband’s policy on the separation of migrant children from their parents.
Her communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN on Sunday that “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.”
Ms Grisham went on to say that “[Melania] believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart,” a line which supports the president’s recent policy decision to criminally prosecute all adults attempting to cross illegally into the US over the southern border.
Mrs Trump has made helping children one of the centrepieces of her platform as first lady, but had yet to comment on a subject which is rapidly becoming a major embarrassment to her husband’s administration.
In recent days, key members of the Trump team including his press spokeswoman Sarah Sanders Huckabee and attorney general Jeff Sessions have been challenged on the humanity of the policy: Mr Sessions attempted to invoke Christian scripture to justify the move which has seen families torn apart and has reportedly led to suicides by parents.
A top White House adviser on Sunday attempted to distance the 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.
The president 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 counsellor to the president.
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May after Mr 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.
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 traumatising to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country.”
Maine Senator 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.”
Mr 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.
Ms Conway rejected the idea that the president was using the kids as leverage to force Democrats to negotiate on immigration and his long-promised border wall, even after Mr Trump tweeted on Saturday: “Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!”
Democrat Representative Adam Schiff said that 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.”
He said the practice was “deeply unethical” and that Republicans’ refusal to criticise Mr Trump represented a “sad degeneration” of the GOP, which he said had become “the party of lies”.
Ms 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.”