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Reporters spar with White House press secretary over separation of parents and kids at border

Congressional Republicans distanced themselves Thursday from the Trump administration's policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border even as the White House cited the Bible in defending its "zero tolerance" approach to illegal border crossings.

Testy exchanges amid questions about immigration policy and biblical justifications

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders cited the Bible to defend a border policy that has separated children from their parents. 0:52

Congressional Republicans distanced themselves Thursday from the Trump administration's policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border, even as the White House cited the Bible in defending its "zero tolerance" approach to illegal border crossings.

"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 had earlier cited the Bible in his defence of the border policy that has resulted in hundreds of children being separated from their parents. Speaking Thursday in Fort Wayne, Ind., 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 of Wisconsin 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.

Tense exchanges

In an unusually tense series of exchanges in the White House briefing room — with both CNN's Jim Acosta and Brian Karem of the Sentinel newspapers — Sanders blamed Democrats for the policy separating children from parents and wrongly insisted the administration had made no changes increasing the tactics' use. 

When Acosta asked about her "very biblical" remark, Sanders suggested he was taking her words out of context, adding: "I know it's hard for you to understand, even short sentences, I guess."

Moments later, she sparred with Karem:

Karem: You're a parent! Don't you have any empathy? Come on, Sarah, you're a parent. Don't you have any empathy for what these people are going through? They have less than you do.

Sanders: Brian, God, settle down!

Karem: Sarah, come on, seriously, seriously.

Sanders: I'm trying to be serious, but I'm not going to have you yelling out of turn.

Karem: You're sitting here telling us it's a law and they have — that these people have nothing. They come over here with nothing.

Sanders: Hey, Brian, I know you want to get more TV time, but that's not what this is about.

Karem: It's not that! It's not about that. It's about you answering a question, Sarah.

Sanders did not answer his question and called on another reporter. The press briefing ended a few minutes later. 

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.

A mural is displayed in the shelter run out of an old Walmart by a non-profit agency, which contains nearly 1,500 boys seeking entry into the U.S. (Department of Health and Human Services)

During the criminal proceedings, the children are usually released to other family members or foster care.

Crowded in cages

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 Walmart 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.

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.

With files from CBC News