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First lady Melania Trump uncharacteristically waded into a fierce debate around immigration on Sunday, pushing for bipartisan cooperation to end the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border.
“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," according to a statement from her spokeswoman. "She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
The first lady's statement stood in contrast to comments made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who implemented the "zero tolerance" policy that has led to the separation of families at the border. The president has also repeatedly blamed Democrats opposed to his immigration reform proposal, falsely crediting an anti-trafficking law that passed unanimously in 2008 under President George W. Bush for the separations and a 1997 legal settlement under President Bill Clinton regulating treatment of minors at the border.
The detention of children apart from their parents is a result of the policy mandated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and there is no law that requires family separation. As such, congressional action is not necessary to stop it. Sessions has said the intent is to eventually prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally.
Last week, Sessions gave a full-throated defense of the policy leading to family separations, saying having children does not give migrants immunity from prosecution and citing the Bible as justification.
"Non-citizens who cross our borders unlawfully, between our ports of entry, with children are not an exception," the attorney general said. "They are the ones who broke the law, they are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek."
Meanwhile, politicians and advocates protested, marched and visited an immigration detention center on Father’s Day to call attention to parents and children that have been separated as a result of Trump’s policies.
On Sunday morning, members of Congress from New York and New Jersey demanded access to a privately run detention facility in New Jersey to meet with detained fathers separated from their children.
The administration separated 1,995 children from 1,940 adults from April 19 to May 31, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said Friday.
A chaotic scene unfolded Sunday morning as seven Democratic members of Congress sought entry to the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey.
The politicians said they had authorization from detainee attorneys to visit five asylum seekers who had been separated from their children, but were kept from entering the facility for nearly two hours as employees and police denied them entry.
At one point after a contentious exchange, a detention center employee taped pieces of paper to a window in front of her desk, blocking the Congress members’ view.
The lawmakers spoke to various staff and authorities at the center, demanding to be allowed entry but were repeatedly refused with the reasoning that more senior officials at the facility needed to arrive at the facility first.
The members trying to gain entry were Democrats Rep. Jerry Nadler, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Rep. Adriano Espaillat, of New York, and Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Albio Sires and Rep. Bill Pascrell, of New Jersey.
The politicians held a news conference afterwards and described “heart-breaking stories” told by father’s who were separated from their kids.
Nadler said the group spoke to “fathers whose children have been ripped from their arms, who have no idea when or if they’ll see their children again.” He said the group was planning to introduce legislation in Congress next week that would stop families from being separated.
Pallone described meeting a man whose 5-year-old daughter was taken from him. The man has heard his daughter was taken to Michigan, but he is not sure and has not spoken to her, he said.
“They took his daughter ... while he sleeping at 3 a.m. in the morning," he said. "He got on his knees and begged for them when he saw that they had taken the daughter and started crying and they took her away.”
Meanwhile, Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar and others led a Father’s Day march to Tornillo, Texas, where migrant children are being held in a tent city detention facility.
Hundreds marched down the road to the Tornillo Port of Entry in protest, according to NBC affiliate KTSM.
A crowd gathered outside the main port of entry entrance, with demonstrators from all over Texas and some from New Mexico, KTSM reported.
Marchers held signs and chanted "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now" and "Free our children now."
"Right now our country is taking kids away from their parents, detaining them in tent camps like this one, but our country is also standing up and marching and forcing some accountability for what we’re doing," O’Rourke, who is also running for the Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, said outside the facility.
"There is nothing more human than doing everything you can for your child when they face in some cases certain death, rape, torture to take them in your arms and bring them to safety," he said.