Human rights groups planned protests in dozens of cities across the United States Friday against the Trump administration's policy to separate asylum-seeking Central American immigrant children from their parents.
The White House is drawing accusations of human rights abuse over a policy the government sees as a necessary deterrent to illegal immigration, but the critics say is cruel to migrants fleeing violence in Central America.
"These families are not trying to sneak in, they're coming to the borders, presenting themselves, and asking for our help," said California Congressman Jimmy Gomez at a rally Thursday in Los Angeles.
"There is nothing illegal about coming to our border and asking for asylum."
The backlash has placed President Donald Trump, who has promised to halt illegal immigration, on the defensive. He blames the previous administration of president Barack Obama for the separation policy, as well as Democrats in Congress, despite the Republicans' majority.
"Separating families is more than cruel and unnecessary -- it's torture," said the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued to stop the practice.
Trump's own daughter Ivanka was blasted across social media last week when she posted a photograph of herself with her son in her arms. Critics labeled her insensitive to the experiences of immigrant mothers.
"It must be nice you get to hug your child. What about the numerous children that were torn from their mothers' arms?" said one Twitter commentator @whiskyogi.
- Surge of asylum requests -
The policy aims to stem a surge of poor families mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras pouring into the United States.
Citing the daily violence in their home countries, thousands each week cross the US-Mexico border and immediately turn themselves in to authorities asking for asylum.
They are part of a broader rebound in illegal immigration that has deeply angered Trump.
In April alone, 50,924 people were detained after crossing the border without papers, including 4,314 unaccompanied children and 9,647 family units, according to the US Customs and Border Patrol.
With detention centers and the court system already overwhelmed, the Obama presidency processed asylum requests and released the applicant families together into the country while they awaited adjudication, which can take more than one year.
Beginning late last year, though, the Trump administration began separating some illegal border crossers from their children, sending the youngsters to holding facilities for several weeks before either transferring them back to parents or to relatives already living in the United States.
From October to April about 700 children were separated from their parents.
That has not deterred the flow.
On May 7 Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy that will see every unauthorized border crosser charged with a crime even before they can request asylum.
"Today we are here to send a message to the world: we are not going to let this country be overwhelmed.... If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you," Sessions said.
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law," he said, adding: "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
- Migrants fleeing real dangers -
In the two weeks after Sessions' announcement, authorities arrested 658 children together with 638 adults, according to Richard Hudson, deputy chief of operations at the US Border Patrol. But Hudson, testifying last week to Congress, did not say whether the families were separated.
The administration says the families who send or bring their children across the border are working with organized human smugglers who teach them exactly what to say to be placed into the asylum processing. That gives an incentive for people to head to the United States, they argue.
The immigrants say they are fleeing real dangers in their home countries.
Yanira Lopez Lucas, a Guatemalan, said at a San Antonio, Texas rally late Thursday that the government didn't need to treat them so harshly.
"All we want to do is protect our families. We are refugees trying to escape everything that is going on in our countries," she said.