The emotional debate over separating immigrant parents and their children at the nation's southern border is getting some strong comments from first ladies — past and present — who want the practice changed.

First lady Melania Trump "hates" to see families separated at the border and hopes "both sides of the aisle" can reform the nation's immigration laws, according to a statement from her office Sunday about the controversy. Former first lady Laura Bush called the policy "cruel" and "immoral" and said "it breaks my heart."

For both, it was an unusual entry into a fierce political debate.

Mrs. Trump didn't refer specifically to the Trump administration's "no tolerance" policy, which was leading to a spike in children being separated from their families. Government statistics indicate that nearly 2000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May.

Advertisement

A spokeswoman for the wife of President Donald Trump issued the statement after several days of images of crying children appearing on television and online.

"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, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Trump.

"She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."

While the statement suggested the matter was an issue for Congress, Democratic lawmakers and others have pointed out that no law mandates the separation of children and parents at the border.

A new Trump administration policy, which went into effect in May, sought to maximise criminal prosecutions of people caught trying to enter the US illegally. More adults were being jailed as a result, which led to their children being separated from them.

Laura Bush was writing a guest column for The Washington Post on Sunday (US time) and compared the policy to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel," she wrote. She said the US government "should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso."

Trump said on Friday, "I hate the children being taken away," but he also falsely blamed Democrats for a law requiring it.

In an effort to rebut criticism of the administration, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Sunday repeated in a tweet the department's view: "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period."

In a separate tweet, she accused the news media and others of misreporting the issue and called on those seeking asylum to do so at ports of entry rather than crossing illegally.

"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," Nielsen wrote.

Laura Bush's Washington Post column

On Sunday, a day we as a nation set aside to honor fathers and the bonds of family, I was among the millions of Americans who watched images of children who have been torn from their parents.

In the six weeks between April 19 and May 31, the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers or foster care. More than 100 of these children are younger than 4 years old. The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders.

I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.

Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war. We pride ourselves on believing that people should be seen for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents - and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.

Melania Trump and Laura Bush, left, have spoken about children being separated from parents at the US border. Photos / Getty Images, AP
Melania Trump and Laura Bush, left, have spoken about children being separated from parents at the US border. Photos / Getty Images, AP

People on all sides agree that our immigration system isn't working, but the injustice of zero tolerance is not the answer. I moved away from Washington almost a decade ago, but I know there are good people at all levels of government who can do better to fix this.

Recently, Colleen Kraft, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a shelter run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. She reported that while there were beds, toys, crayons, a playground and diaper changes, the people working at the shelter had been instructed not to pick up or touch the children to comfort them. Imagine not being able to pick up a child who is not yet out of diapers.

Twenty-nine years ago, my mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, visited Grandma's House, a home for children with HIV/AIDS in Washington. Back then, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the disease was a death sentence, and most babies born with it were considered "untouchables."

During her visit, Barbara - who was the first lady at the time - picked up a fussy, dying baby named Donovan and snuggled him against her shoulder to soothe him. My mother-in-law never viewed her embrace of that fragile child as courageous.

She simply saw it as the right thing to do in a world that can be arbitrary, unkind and even cruel. She, who after the death of her 3-year-old daughter knew what it was to lose a child, believed that every child is deserving of human kindness, compassion and love.

In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis? I, for one, believe we can.

- Bush is a former first lady of the United States.

- AP