President Donald Trump and his administration continued to aggressively defend its policy of separating children from parents who enter the country illegally as public backlash to the policy intensified and Republicans on Capitol Hill sought a solution.
Customs and Border Protection officials on Tuesday said they have separated more than 2,000 children from parents or other family members since early May but did not say how many of those children are under the age of five.
Brian Hastings, Border Patrol's acting chief of operations, told reporters that the agency's field supervisors have discretion to allow those young children to stay with their parents, if, for instance, they are breast-feeding or if U.S. authorities believe there is a "humanitarian" reason to keep them with their family members.
Steve Wagner, the acting assistant secretary at Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, said the agency's Office of Refugee Resettlement is housing 11,786 immigrant children in "an elaborate network" of facilities in 17 states.
Wagner clarified that most of those children entered the country unaccompanied by family members, but those numbers include a recent surge of children taken from their parents at the border.
As outrage about the separations continued to build, President Trump showed no sign of backing away from his "zero tolerance" policy of prosecuting illegal immigrants who enter the country regardless of whether they bring children with them.
His administration stood by its argument that the resolution of the Flores settlement agreement impedes its ability to keep children with their parents during the process of prosecuting illegal immigration cases or promptly returning these families to their home countries.
Trump also continued his effort to blame Democrats for failing to compromise with Republicans on legislation carving out a middle ground.
The White House late Friday signaled the president would sign a compromise measure allowing so-called Dreamers to remain in the country legally. The legislation includes several of Trump's priorities: money for a border wall, a shift to so-called merit-based immigration, and an end to the visa lottery system.
"Democrats are the problem," Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. "They don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can't win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!"
During a speech to a small business group later Tuesday, Trump called on Congress to provide the legal authority to detain and properly deport families together as a unit.
"We have to be able to do this," he said. "This is the only solution to the border crisis."
He and his cabinet pledged to continue the controversial separation policy even as Republican lawmakers scrambled to contain the growing political crisis just five months before an election that will determine which party controls Congress.
Just weeks ago, Republicans had gained ground on the immigration issue when Democrats in California and other states imposed sanctuary policies that galvanized many conservatives in opposition.
The images and accounts of thousands of children being held in temporary detention centers without their parents or known guardians have since overwhelmed news headlines.
Over the last several days, several Republican luminaries, including former First Lady Laura Bush and GOP governors have vociferously decried the practice.
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill, even several of the most conservative, are departing from Trump on the issue, eager to find a solution that would end the policy.
Trump plans to meet with House Republicans at the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, as Democrats ramp up their attacks against Trump and his GOP supporters.
New poll numbers suggested Republicans need to act swiftly to protect their vulnerable members in blue or swing districts and states.
Roughly two-thirds of U.S. voters oppose the Trump administration's new family-separation policy, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released Monday.
The results of the survey also show that the more hardline immigration policy plays well with Trump's base. Just 35 percent of Republicans oppose the practice, while 91 percent of Democrats do.
Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), have pounced on the issue.
Feinstein, who is facing a re-election challenge for her seat from the left, authored a bill that would bar children from being separated from their parents within 100 miles of the U.S. border except for instances of abuse, neglect, or other extenuating circumstances.
The legislation has the support of all 49 Senate Democrats.
Republicans are working on a bill of their own. Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate majority whip, is working with fellow Republicans Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and James Lankford (Okla.), on a narrowly crafted bill that would keep families together during expedited reviews of the children's status.
The House Republicans so far have not signaled whether they will back a standalone bill to address the family-separation issue. They had already planned to take up two more comprehensive immigration measures this week: one sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and another that is a GOP leadership-backed compromise bill.
The White House has indicated the president would support both bills, which are slated for Thursday floor votes.
Cruz, who has often supported Trump's stricter immigration policies, on Monday said the family-separation practices are horrifying and must stop.
"All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers. This must stop," he said. "We can end this crisis by passing the legislation I am introducing this week."
Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) called the separation policy "counter to our values" as Americans and argued that the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services aren't equipped to care for these children.
"We can have stronger border security without separating families at the border," he said. "They can be kept together and dealt with as a family unit."
As chairman of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Portman has studied the ability of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services to house and care for children who cross the border illegally without their parents or guardians.
An investigation Portman spearheaded several years ago exposed problems that lead to HHS turning over several unaccompanied minors to human traffickers during the Obama administration.
"We know that HHS and DHS are not prepared to effectively deal with even more unaccompanied minors," Portman said Tuesday in a statement. "This policy is taking children from the love and care that parents provide and putting them at risk of trafficking, abuse, and getting lost in the immigration system."