WASHINGTON – The battle over children being separated from their parents at the border is spilling over into another week.
At a White House briefing on Monday afternoon, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders introduced Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to speak to reporters about the issue.
Neilsen called on Congress to close the "loopholes" in the current law which prevent families from staying together. "It is not possible, as a matter of law, to detain and remove whole family units who arrive illegally in the United States," Nielsen said.
In the tense briefing, Nielsen noted that the US has struggled with a huge spike in immigration at the Mexico border in the last three months. She also says most of the children in these facitlities were sent to the US alone, or with strangers.
"We give them medical care. We take care of them. We have high standards," Nielsen said.
When asked how President Donald Trump's evangelical supporters should respond to the immigration crisis, Sanders said any evangelical Christian or church who feels strongly about the issue should "open up their doors and help facilitate some of these individuals."
"That's their calling. It's the mission of the church, and they should certainly fulfill that," she added. "If they want to fix the immigration problem, they should call their members of Congress and ask them to join with us to do that."
First lady Melania Trump also weighed in on the controversy.
"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," said Stephanie Grisham, press secretary and communications director for the first lady.
"She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws but also a country that governs with heart," she explained.
The Trump administration has long vowed to crack down on the rate of illegal immigration.
Now, the Department of Justice is pushing back with its new "zero tolerance policy."
"If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
Under the new policy, every adult that crosses into the US illegally will be criminally prosecuted. That includes asylum seekers who don't enter through the port of entry. With a criminal prosecution, children are then separated from their parents.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, 1,995 have been children separated from their parents in the past six weeks.
'A Life-Changing Experience'
Church elder and father of four Adam Estle has seen the influx of illegal immigrants up close and personal. Estle was the former director of Refugio Phoenix, a school for immigrant children.
That's where he met Victor, a 9-year-old boy from Honduras – and just like that, Estle became a father of five. "It was a life-changing experience for our family," Estle told CBN News.
Estle and his wife became Victor's foster parents. That's when they learned more about him and the circumstances that would make a person travel 1,000 miles into an unknown country.
"For him, in Honduras, it was a combination of fleeing gang violence, fleeing a lack of opportunities for young people and domestic violence was part of the equation," Estle explained.
It's a story he says he hears all the time from people crossing illegally into the US.
A Closer Look at the Controversy
The idea of separating children from parents isn't new. In fact, past administrations have separated children from their parents, too. But Estle, who also serves as Director of Field and Constituencies of the National Immigration Forum, says this time is a bit different.
In the past, illegal border crossing was treated as a misdemeanor on the first offense for most individuals; therefore there was no need for a criminal prosecution.
"What's happening now is there is no discretion. Everybody is put in this category," Estle explained. That also includes asylum seekers who cross illegally.
"A huge difference that should be problematic for people of faith is that we are separating families who are coming to our border in accordance with US and international law to request asylum," Estle continued.
Sessions says there is a reason for that.
"The previous administration released most aliens apprehended at the border who requested asylum into the United States with a document asking them to show up for a hearing at some later date," the attorney general claimed. "Word spread quickly that by asserting a fear of returning to one's home country, one could remain in the United States."
"The results are just what one would expect. The number of illegal entrants has surged," he said.
Department of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen also defended the policy on Twitter.
This misreporting by Members, press & advocacy groups must stop. It is irresponsible and unproductive. 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.
— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) June 17, 2018
"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 wrote.
Christian Leaders Respond
Christian leaders, including Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and Dr. Russell Moore, sent a letter to the administration hoping they'd find a better solution than breaking up families.
"As evangelical Christians guided by the Bible, one of our core convictions is that God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society. The state should separate families only in the rarest of instances," the letter reads.
Matthew Soerens, director of Church Mobilization at World Relief, agreed. "Central for us at World Relief is our belief that every human being is made in the image of God," he explained. "We find that at the beginning of the Bible and that needs to be the foundation, both as we think about refugees who are fleeing persecutions or immigrants who are seeking a better life in the United States."
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who also serves as a pastor, says he too hopes there is a better way. "Clearly, God's design is for a family unit," Lankford said.
Meanwhile, in an interview with CBN News, evangelist Franklin Graham called the situation "disgraceful" and blamed years of inaction from lawmakers.
Sessions says the biblical thing would be for people to obey the law.
"I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 – to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes," said Sessions.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is laying the blame at the feet of Democrats.
"I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. That's their law," the president said Friday.
Democratic leaders say that isn't so, insisting the separation is a direct result of the no-tolerance policy. "Let me be clear: That's false. No law requires this action," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
In a speech last week, Sessions faulted the Obama administration for failing to prosecute all illegal border crossers.
"The previous administration wouldn't prosecute illegal aliens who entered the country with children. It was de facto open borders," Sessions charged.
"The results were unsurprising," he continued. "More and more illegal aliens started showing up at the border with children."
While true, this admission seems to prove the idea that criminally prosecuting all offenders is, in fact, unique to this administration, thus resulting in an uptick of separated families.
When asked about immigration reform on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, "The president isn’t trying to kick the can down the road. He’s trying to work with Congress."
"He wants to actually fix the problem," she said. "This isn’t just something we can tinker with. We have to fix the entire problem."
Sanders also said any evangelical or any church that feels strongly should open up their doors if that’s their calling -- the mission of the church.
"If they want to fix the immigration problem," she stressed. "They should call their members of Congress."