WASHINGTON — The Trump administration dug in Thursday to defend its “zero tolerance” immigration policy amid criticism from faith leaders that the tougher stance is forcing the separation of families at the border.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a speech to police officers in Fort Wayne, Ind., cited Romans 13, imploring his “church friends” to remember the Bible passage that directs the faithful to obey the laws of the government.
“Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves,” Sessions said. “Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing, and it protects the weak.”
Sessions was responding to questions raised recently by faith leaders about the Trump administration’s decision to prosecute asylum seekers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border criminally rather than handling those cases as civil matters.
The issue erupted Thursday during a testy White House briefing as reporters pressed Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Sessions’ remarks and her assertion that Democrats are to blame for the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” Sanders said “That is, actually, repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”
Another reporter interrupted to note that Sanders is a parent and asked whether she has “any empathy for what these people are going through?”
The stepped-up enforcement — which Sessions has described as a deterrent to illegal immigration — triggers other requirements that were in place prior to Trump’s presidency. Those requirements include that children cannot be held in detention with their parents, and so they have been separated by border agents under the new policy.
The White House has focused on the requirements that were previously in place, and officials have blamed congressional Democrats for not fixing that system. Critics of the administration counter that those requirements would not be used as frequently absent the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
“Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma,” said Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and cardinal of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
“While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety,” DiNardo said in a statement. “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”