Contrary to the president’s public statements, no law requires families to necessarily be separated at the border. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s “zero tolerance” announcement this spring that the government will prosecute all unlawful immigrants as criminals set up a situation in which children are removed when their parents are taken into federal custody. Previous administrations made exceptions to such prosecutions for adults traveling with minor children, but the Trump administration has said it will not do so. While the president has blamed Democrats, his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, told The New York Times last week that it was “a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period.” But Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, rejected responsibility for the separations in a series of tweets on Sunday. “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she wrote. “Period.” She distinguished between asylum seekers who try to enter the country at designated points of entry and those who arrive at other parts of the border. “For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between ‘family’ members, or if the adult has broken a law,” she wrote. ADVERTISEMENT But there have been reports of people arriving at the ports of entry asking for asylum and being taken into custody, and some of the designated ports are not accepting asylum claims. In those cases, migrants sometimes cross wherever they can and, because it is not an official border station, are detained even though they are making a claim of asylum. Many would-be asylum applicants do not know where official ports of entry are. The administration approach has drawn a cascade of criticism in recent days. Michael V. Hayden, who was C.I.A. director for President George W. Bush, posted a picture of a Nazi concentration camp on Saturday and wrote, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.” The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and a defender of Mr. Trump, called the family separations “disgraceful.” The furor over the separation policy seemed to grow even as the president planned to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday in advance of votes on immigration legislation that has divided his party. Two competing bills are headed to the floor, a hard-line immigration measure that is expected to go down, and a compromise version crafted by the House Republican leadership. Mr. Trump has confused his allies in the House with conflicting signals about his preferences. At one point on Friday, he said he would not sign the “moderate” bill embraced by the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, only to have the White House later contradict that by saying the president had been confused. ADVERTISEMENT With the fate of the legislation uncertain, Democrats are trying to focus attention on the separation policy as an example of what they call Mr. Trump’s extremist approach to immigration. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has collected 43 Democratic sponsors for legislation to limit family separations. Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland led a group of Democratic lawmakers to a detention facility in Brownsville, Tex., on Sunday but were not allowed to talk with children held there. Seven House Democrats visited a detention facility in Elizabeth, N.J., and said they were blocked for nearly two hours before being allowed to see parents separated from their children. Some Republican lawmakers in recent days have pushed Mr. Trump to reverse or modify the family separation policy by giving new instructions to the Department of Homeland Security. “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and often an ally and golfing partner of the president’s, said on CNN on Friday. “I’ll go tell him. If you don’t like families’ being separated, you can tell D.H.S. stop doing it.” ADVERTISEMENT Anthony Scaramucci, who served briefly as White House communications director last year, said separating children from their families is not “the Christian way” or “the American way,” and made clear he thinks Mr. Trump can end it on his own. “The President can reverse it and I hope he does,” he wrote on Twitter. The conservative editorial page of The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, agreed on Sunday. “It’s not just that this looks terrible in the eyes of the world,” it wrote. “It is terrible.” Mr. Trump has said in recent days that Democrats should agree to his panoply of immigration measures, including full financing for a border wall and revamping the system of legal entry to the country, in effect making clear that any legislation addressing family separation must also include his priorities. A top adviser to Mr. Trump said on Sunday that the president was not using the family separation as leverage to force Democrats to come to the table on other policy disputes, rebutting an unnamed White House official quoted by The Washington Post. “As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has got a conscience, and wouldn’t say the junk that somebody said, apparently, allegedly, I will tell you that nobody likes this policy,” Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “You saw the president on camera that he wants this to end, but everybody has, Congress has to act.”

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