"I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible," said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. "It's a moral policy to follow and enforce the law."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also cited the Bible in his defense of the border policy that has resulted in hundreds of children being separated from their parents. Speaking Thursday in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Sessions pointed to a verse in the Book of Romans on obeying the laws of government, saying, "God has ordained them for the purpose of order."
The comments came as House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans said they were not comfortable with family separations, which spiked dramatically after the Justice Department adopted a policy in April of referring all illegal border crossers for prosecution.
"We don't want kids to be separated from their parents," Ryan said Thursday. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., tweeted Thursday that he told a constituent that, "I am asking the White House to keep families together as much as we can."
In an unusually tense series of exchanges in the White House briefing room, Sanders blamed Democrats for the policy separating children from parents and wrongly insisted the administration had made no changes increasing the tactics' use.
"The separation of illegal alien families is the product of the same legal loopholes that Democrats refuse to close and these laws are the same that have been on the books for over a decade, and the president is simply enforcing them," she said.
Ryan and other GOP lawmakers said they are seeking to resolve the problem in a compromise immigration bill. A draft of that House bill was released late Thursday afternoon and is set to receive a vote next week.
Ryan claimed Thursday that the family-separation policy is being dictated by a court ruling that prevents children who enter the country illegally from being held in custody for long periods. But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pushed back on that assessment, saying that President Donald Trump could "stop the practice on a dime."
She called the Trump administration's separation policy "barbaric," adding: "It has to stop." The family separations are occurring as a result of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy for those entering the country illegally. Under the directive, families crossing the border are routinely referred for criminal prosecution. Previously, families were often sent to civil deportation proceedings, which allow children to remain with their parents.
During the criminal proceedings, the children are usually released to other family members or foster care. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., said he's "heartbroken" by the separations and is working to find a solution to keep families together. His comments were in response to a letter from local officials urging him to demand that the Department of Homeland Security end the practice.
"As a father to two young girls it is unimaginable what these parents are suffering," Yoder said. With horror stories of babies and young children being taken from their mothers receiving heavy news coverage, the White House sought to shift the narrative by providing some media groups with a tour of a former Wal-Mart near the border in Texas that houses several hundred immigrant children.
The tour was tightly controlled and the Health and Human Services Department did not allow any photographs or video or interviews, instead releasing a government-produced video of the shelter. The Associated Press declined to participate in the tour, which came after a Democratic senator tried to enter a federal facility in Texas where immigrant children are being held. Police were called and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon was told to leave.
Merkley said he was able to enter another facility used for processing migrants and run by the Department of Homeland Security. He said he saw men, women and children crowded in cages. "It reminds me a little bit of a dog kennel, constructed of cyclone fencing," Merkley said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also weighed in, saying U.S. officials have discretion to keep families intact. "Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops group.
The cardinal's rebuke is what drew the response from Sessions, who insists the policy of separating families is necessary to deter illegal border-crossings. Historically, immigrants without serious criminal records have been released from custody while they pursued asylum or refugee status. The Trump administration has moved to detain more people, including asylum seekers.
Lawmakers are considering several ideas to prevent family separations, though it remains to be seen if any proposal can garner enough support to pass. One idea is to revisit longstanding rules under the so-called Flores agreement, a decades-old legal settlement that prevents children who enter the country illegally from being held in custody for long periods. Critics say the settlement leaves few options but to separate families as parents are being detained.
If Republicans really wanted to tackle the issue of separating families, they could bring a bill to the House floor on an expedited basis, Pelosi said, adding that she sees no prospect for a legislative fix in the Republican-controlled Congress in an election year.
Ryan, R-Wis., said the House would vote next week on two competing immigration measures, but said he "won't guarantee passage." He said Trump backs the GOP efforts to find a compromise.
Associated Press writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kan. and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.