AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Trump administration says it has no choice when it comes to separating families who have crossed the border unlawfully. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the practice in a speech this morning in New Orleans and later before reporters at the White House.
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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it. Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States. Those who criticize the enforcement of our laws have offered only one countermeasure - open borders.
CORNISH: Now, for more on why the administration is doubling down on this stance in the face of criticism, we turn to NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Hey there, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello, Audie.
CORNISH: So the president also spoke about this today. What did he have to say?
RASCOE: President Trump said again today that Democrats are to blame for what's happening at the border. Here's what he said at the White House earlier today.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: All of the problems that we're having - 'cause we cannot get them to sign legislation. We cannot get them even to the negotiating table. And I say it's very strongly the Democrats' fault.
RASCOE: But that's not right. Even though Trump is pushing this to the Democrats, it's actually his administration's zero tolerance policy that has led to the separation of these families. As Nielsen said in her speech, the Trump administration has decided to prosecute any person coming into this country illegally, which is what leads to these children being separated from their parents. The administration is arguing that they are just following the law, but other administrations have not taken this approach.
CORNISH: So what's complicating the president's approach in basically laying blame with others?
RASCOE: The administration has faced intense pushback on this policy from members of both parties. You have former first lady Laura Bush, who is not known for speaking out about policy, weighing in on this matter with an op-ed in The Washington Post. She called it cruel and immoral and said it breaks her heart. And Bush's article was retweeted by another former first lady, Michelle Obama, who said, quote, "sometimes truth transcends party."
You even have prominent backers of President Trump like former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly saying this looks bad, and the Trump administration should reverse course. President Trump is also very mindful of media coverage and the power of images. And he doesn't seem to want to be associated with these pictures of crying children separated from their parents.
CORNISH: What do we know yet about how this is playing out with voters?
RASCOE: Well, a Quinnipiac poll came out today and - that found that 66 percent of American voters oppose separating children from their parents. But what is interesting, though, is that 55 percent of Republican voters actually back the policy. So there is this concern for the White House ahead of midterms about alienating voters, but this tough-on-immigration stance is actually popular with President Trump's base.
CORNISH: Also this week, Ayesha, Congress is supposed to be taking up the issue of immigration again - right? - in formal legislation. How is it coming together?
RASCOE: So the president is supposed to be going to the Hill on Tuesday to talk with House Republicans about immigration legislation. Republican leaders in the House are working on two bills that are focused on immigration. And one of them would address this issue of families being separated at the border. It would basically allow children to stay with their parents during their detainment in some cases. But I have to say that ultimately it is going to be difficult to get any comprehensive immigration bill through Congress to become law, especially during an election year. There's a reason why we haven't had bills on this topic passed in recent years.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks so much.
RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.