Human rights groups took to the streets in cities across the United States on Friday to protest the Trump administrations policy to separate asylum-seeking Central American immigrant children from their parents.
Hundreds of people chanted "families belong together" in front of the Justice Department in Washington, accusing the government of violating human rights and traumatizing children for political reasons.
"This is indeed an emergency -- every single day children are ripped apart from their parents and the Trump administration must immediately cease this policy," said Jessica Morales, chairwoman of We Belong Together, an immigrant advocacy group.
The protests came after President Donald Trump's administration confirmed that it had split hundreds of families who crossed the southern border without immigration documents since October.
Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an official policy of arresting and separating all parents from their children if they cross the border illegally.
The government sees the policy as a necessary deterrent to illegal immigration, but the critics say it is cruel to refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America.
"This attorney general made a decision to separate our kids from their parents. This is immoral, it's a crime, and we are not going to accept that," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA.
The backlash has placed Trump, who has promised to halt illegal immigration, on the defensive, ironically blaming Democrats for a policy choice his administration has made.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging the policy, calling it a violation of human rights.
"Separating families is more than cruel and unnecessary -- it's torture," the ACLU said.
Surge of asylum requests
The policy aims to stem a surge of poor families mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala 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 US Customs and Border Patrol.
Late last year, the Trump administration quietly 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.
With illegal border crossings and asylum requests undeterred, Sessions announced last month 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
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.
In the two weeks that followed Sessions's announcement, authorities arrested 658 children together with 638 adults, US Border Patrol deputy chief of operations Richard Hudson told lawmakers last week.
The children are believed to have been taken away from their parents, but Hudson would not confirm that.
At the Washington protest, Guatemala native Exel Estrada, who came to the United States at 15 and just finished his first year in a US college, said the Trump administration is "against all immigrants."
"I too was an unaccompanied minor, I too was in a detention center," Estrada said.
"If there were policies like these four years ago, I would not be standing here today."