Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody on 12 June 2018 near McAllen, Texas. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

The president defends controversial practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

Donald Trump said the US will not be a “migrant camp” as his administration defended its controversial practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump said during remarks at the White House on Monday.

“You look at what’s happening in Europe,” he continued, “you look at what’s happening in other places, we can’t allow that to happen to the United States – not on my watch.”

Trump ignored a chorus of intensifying condemnation of a zero-tolerance enforcement policy that has resulted in the separation of nearly 2,000 children from their parents in just six weeks. The separation tactic has drawn bipartisan backlash from prominent members of Congress, human rights advocates and religious leaders who have called the tactic cruel and inhumane according to a report by the Guardian.

Trump again tried to shift responsibility for the policy, claiming inaccurately that his administration was simply enforcing the nation’s “horrible laws”. “I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault.” In a series of tweets earlier on Monday, Trump demanded Congress “CHANGE THE LAWS”.

There is no law requiring immigration officials to separate migrant families at the border and past administrations have avoided the practice. The separations are the consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that subjects all migrants who are caught trying to enter the US illegally to criminal prosecution. Children cannot be held in federal jails while the adults await trial so they are removed from their parents.

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In a pair of speeches at a conference in New Orleans on Monday Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, doubled down on the enforcement policy.

“We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does, for doing the job that the American people expect us to do,” Nielsen said, addressing a friendly audience at the National Sheriffs’ Association conference.

“Illegal actions have and must have consequences,” she added. “No more free passes, no more get out of jail free cards.”

Sessions blamed past administrations for carving out exceptions for migrant families that crossed the border illegally, paving the way for the current crisis.

“Word got out about this loophole with predictable results. The number of aliens illegally crossing with children between our ports of entry went from 14,000 to 75,000 – that’s a five-fold increase – in just the last four years,” the attorney general claimed. He added the White House does not “want” to separate children from their parents and that the US is “dedicated to caring for those children”.

“If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices,” he said, urging Congress to act. “We will have a system where those who need to apply for asylum can do so and those who want to come to this country will apply to enter lawfully.”

Over the weekend, Republican lawmakers, conservative faith leaders and the former first lady Laura Bush joined Democrats in condemning the practice.

Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, called the practice “contrary to our values in this country” and said it was “traumatizing” to the children who are caught in the center of an already polarizing debate over immigration in Washington.

In an op-ed, Bush spoke out forcefully against the Trump administration practice, comparing scenes of migrant children locked in cages away from their parents to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second world war.

“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,” she wrote in a column in the Washington Post.

Bill Clinton also weighed in to accuse the Trump administration of using the migrant children as leverage in negotiations with Democrats over immigration.

“These children should not be a negotiating tool,” he wrote on Twitter. “And reuniting them with their families would reaffirm America’s belief in & support for all parents who love their children.”

Hillary Clinton retweeted the message, adding: “YES!

And in a rare foray into public policy, Melania Trump weighed in to say that she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together”. While the first lady expressed displeasure with the practice she avoided blaming her husband’s administration, effectively echoing the president’s claim that the actions are the result of a law passed by Democrats.

Democrats are meanwhile trying to focus the spiraling debate on the family separations, pointing to the tactic as the clearest example yet of what they say are Trump’s extremist immigration policies. Several Democratic lawmakers spent Sunday, which is Father’s Day in the US, visiting detention facilities. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California announced on Monday that all 49 Democrats had signed on to her legislation to limit family separations.

“The entire Democratic caucus supports our bill to bar children from being taken from their parents at the border,” she said on Twitter. “I’ve heard countless Republicans say that they oppose children being taken from their parents. If that’s true, they should support our bill NOW!”

The crisis at the US-Mexico border coincides with an effort by a group of Republicans to pass immigration reform before the November midterms. Trump is pressuring Democrats to negotiate with Republicans on an immigration bill that addresses family separations.

The legislation, crafted as a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans, would make it easier for children to be detained and harder for families to claim asylum. The bill also includes longstanding demands from the White House, including funding for a wall along the southern border and restrictions on legal immigration in exchange for legal protections for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

Supporters of the legislation say the proposal would address the White House’s practice of separating families but experts say the bill, in its current form, falls short. The fate of the bill, which is expected to receive a vote in the House of Representatives this week, remains uncertain.

Democrats have denounced the effort as an attempt to leverage the crisis at the border to extract support for Trump’s immigration priorities.

“It holds Dreamers and kids who have been separated from their parents hostage in order to cut legal immigration and enact the hard right’s immigration agenda,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, said in a statement on Monday. “ If the House moderates really want to get something done on immigration, they should not be duped by their leadership for a bill that they know isn’t going anywhere.”