Advocacy groups mobilizing supporters to end the 'zero-tolerance' immigration policy

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- After the Department of Homeland Security reported 2,000 children had been separated from their families at the U.S. border, advocacy groups responded in force.

From class-action lawsuits to petitions, here are three advocacy groups mobilizing supporters to take action.

American Civil Liberties Union

The ACLU has been one of the leading groups in the immigration battle, filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration for separating immigrant parents and children.

The ACLU first filed Ms. L v. ICE to reunite a mother and her 7-year-old daughter after they were detained and separated at the U.S. border. The lawsuit resulted in a partial ruling, and the ACLU awaits the motion of a nationwide preliminary injunction. A class certification was submitted on behalf of immigrant families affected and is pending for approval.

While the ACLU waits on the class certification, the group has gathered donations, signatures, and is encouraging people to call their senators.

The organization’s website reads: "We know the government will bend to public pressure because they have already reunited one asylum seeker with her child after more than 65,000 activists like you signed the petition. Now we need to make sure our members of Congress take action to end this cruel practice once and for all. Let's reunite every family the Trump administration tore apart -– and make sure this never happens again."

Last week, celebrity Chrissy Teigen and singer-songwriter John Legend announced that in honor of President Trump's 72nd birthday, their family of four would donate $72,000 each. Teigen also encouraged her followers to donate, and in two days raised more than $1 million.

Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights

Focused on helping immigrant children who arrive at the U.S. border alone, the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights told ABC News in a statement it will be launching the "Immigrant Child and Family Rights Project" to assist both unaccompanied children and children separated from their families.

As a part of the project, the Young Center will be hiring two new attorneys to spread their efforts to assign child advocates for minors separated from parents. One attorney will be stationed at the border and the other in New York "where many of the young, separated children are placed." In addition, a new social worker will be hired to work in San Antonio to work on family-separation cases referred to the Young Center in Texas.

"For children who've been separated from their parents, our role is to advocate with the Department of Homeland Security to reunify the children with their mothers and fathers and to ensure that the mothers and fathers are able to speak on behalf of their children," the Young Center told ABC News in a statement. "Parental rights are intact."

The Young Center says its policy team is working with the public and policymakers to raise awareness of the concerns surrounding the “zero-tolerance” policy enacted by the Trump administration that is separating these families.

Young Center, which has eight locations in the U.S., is "working closely with child welfare organizations around the country—to communicate to Congress and the Department of Homeland Security that separating children from their mothers and fathers leads to serious harm to children’s health and development."

Children's Rights

In addition to partnering with the ACLU in a lawsuit against the policy, Children's Rights has created a toolkit to guide those who wish to help end the "abhorrent" policy.

The toolkit includes a petition, directions on how to contact members of Congress, and a donation link.

"Needlessly ripping kids, toddlers, babies away from their parents is inhumane, barbaric and unconstitutional. An Administration that purports to uphold family values is callously inflicting devastating trauma on children and families in service of its punitive immigration policies," said Sandy Santana, the organization's executive director.

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Experts say psychological impact of family separation on par with abuse 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection(NEW YORK) -- There’s a vivid term mental health experts use to describe the destruction of the love of life in another human being, especially in a child: It's called “soul murder.” It can happen as a result of physical abuse, they say, but just as easily, as a result of psychological violence, including when children are separated from their parents.

“Two of the most damaging childhood adversities are loss of the attachment bond with the parents and childhood physical and sexual abuse,” University of Texas psychiatry professor Luis Zayas told ABC News. “If you want to damage someone permanently, expose him or her to one or both of these traumas.”

Speaking to the National Sheriffs' Association Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that "it is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of — don’t believe the press. They are very well taken care of.”

Maybe so, but for children and adolescents forced separation is still psychological damaging, whatever the physical circumstances of the facility where they are housed.

“No amount of colorful rooms with lots of great toys, regular meals, and health and education services takes away the psychological impact of losing your parents,” said Zayas, the dean of UT Austin’s School of Social Work. “The damage that will be done will last a lifetime.”

After visiting a shelter in Texas, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Colleen Kraft, in a television interview, likened what she saw to abuse.

"It is a form of child abuse," Kraft told CBS News. "This type of trauma can be long-lasting, and it's difficult to recover from this. We know very young children go on to not develop their speech, not develop their language, not develop their gross and fine motor skills and wind up with developmental delays."

The Trump administration claims that the repurposed box stores and makeshift facilities now holding the migrant children separated from their parents are air-conditioned, with lessons and sports to divert the mind and body, safe beds to sleep in, and regular meals. Even if that’s true, experts say, to the children confined inside, it can feel like prison.

“Detention of any kind -- especially when separated from primary caretakers -- will exacerbate symptoms, increasing the severity of trauma-related symptoms, depression, and anxiety,” says Jodi Berger Cardoso of the University of Houston. “Children become hopeless and shut down from the stress. During this time, they need their primary caretaker to help reassure them that they are safe and loved. This cannot be done by strangers, no matter the quality of the facility.”

There’s a reason social workers are loathed to take children away from their parents unless it really is a matter of life and death: Study after study has found that children who are removed do no better than those who are left at home, even in terrible circumstances. One explanation is that any positive benefits of removal are outweighed by the serious trauma caused by separation.

“We do not want to separate children from their parents,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions Monday at the same event where Nielsen spoke. “But we do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our laws to come here illegally.”

But the fact that there is a legitimate political debate over the rule of law and the morality of breaking up families doesn’t negate the poisonous legacy of policies that pull families apart – policies like slavery, the forced assimilation of Native American and Australian aboriginal children, and the separation of parent and child on the southern border -- different in scale, but not in effect on individual children.

“Even a week in detention, under circumstances like the ones we’re seeing in immigration enforcement, can be devastating,” says Zayas. “Young children’s incapacity to understand time makes 50 days equal to 50 months, they simply cannot grasp it. Just look at how children view a school day of six hours or even a visit to some boring relatives’ home, as an eternity.”

The feeling of loss is so profound that it can trigger serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, or cause what psychologists call dissociation – the sense of being an observer over your own body - a dangerous mental rupture that can lead to serious problems including multiple personality disorders.

“Daily life for children becomes very difficult. Getting up, going to school, taking care of themselves, feels like impossible tasks,” says the University of Houston’s Berger Cardozo, who has done extensive research on detained migrant children. “Like anyone who is in a heightened state of fear and isolation, it triggers fight or flight responses in our body. Children may try to fight through their emotions but eventually, their bodies and minds will be overwhelmed with the stress and they will begin to shut down.”

“Whether its drug abuse or crime or deviations and perversities or mental health problems or inability to function in society or suicide, the damage will take its course,” says Zayas. “Long-term psychological problems emerge and chronic illnesses appear in early adulthood that plague the person for the rest of their lives. Their lives are shortened.”

Even if they do understand that the parent is alive and that they will likely be reunited after the process works itself out, it can still feel to a child like a parent had gone forever, Zayas worries that the worst fears of the children may come true.

In May, the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the children’s wellbeing and reunification, told Congress that it had lost track of 1,475 children who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone and were then placed with U.S. sponsors in 2017.

“These children will live in hope of reuniting but mostly they will be forgotten,” says Zayas. “Considering the vast numbers of children in over 14 states, the government and contract agencies will surely lose records, fail to keep track of parents’ whereabouts, and fail to reunite children with their parents.”

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Using Trump's term, Pentagon suspends plans for 'wargame' with South Korea

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Pentagon has suspended planning for a major military exercise in August in South Korea as a direct result of President Donald Trump's pledge to stop "wargames" following the Singapore summit with North Korea's Kim Jon Un.

Notably, the Pentagon statement announcing the suspension used the term "wargame" instead of the standard term "military exercise."

"Consistent with President Trump's commitment and in concert with our Republic of Korea ally, the United States military has suspended all planning for this August's defensive "wargame" (Freedom Guardian)," said Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokesperson.

"We are still coordinating additional actions," said White. "No decisions on subsequent wargames have been made."

Trump also had called the exercises "provocative," using the same language that North Korea has used for years in objecting to the readiness drills.

White said that later this week Defense Secretary James Mattis would meet at the Pentagon with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton to discuss "this issue."

"There is no impact on Pacific exercises outside of the Korean Peninsula," said White.

Monday's announcement appeared to be the Pentagon's first use of the term "wargame" to describe what has been consistently described as military exercises before Trump last week used it to describe the military exercises held annually by the U.S. and South Korean militaries.

Trump cited what he said were the high costs of the large-scale exercises as one reason why he was stopping them and surprisingly called them "very provocative."

That announcement seemed to catch senior military officials by surprise though the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Mattis was consulted beforehand about the president's announcement. Since Trump's announcement, the Pentagon has not been able to provide an estimate of the cost of the annual military exercises.

The Pentagon has consistently labeled the annual large-scale exercises as defensive in nature and crucial to maintaining the readiness of both American and South Korean troops to fight back any military aggression from North Korea.

The 28,500 American troops permanently stationed in South Korea participate year round in a variety of air, ground and sea exercises with the South Korean military.

The exercises focus on ways that the U.S. and South Korea could repel a North Korean attack at a moment's notice, a commitment reflected in U.S. Forces Korea's motto of "Fight Tonight."

The mostly computer-based exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guard was slated to begin in August, last year's version of the exercise involved more than 17,000 troops.

For now, there appears to be no impact on the other main military exercise known as Foal Eagle that takes place every spring.

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All 5 first ladies speak out against family-separation immigration policy

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- All five living first ladies have weighed in on the the Trump administration's immigration policy this week, an unusual move even as Melania Trump had her spokeswoman issue a statement on it.

The policy of separating children from their family members when they cross the border illegally has prompted debate in Washington, with many rights groups calling the practice inhumane.

The Trump administration has said it's simply enforcing a law to prosecute adults that come into the U.S. illegally and that children cannot be housed with adults while they are going through the criminal process.

A spokeswoman for First Lady Melania Trump said she "hates to see" families separated and called on both Democrats and Republicans to change immigration laws.

"Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform," the first lady's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said in a statement. "She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."

Laura Bush wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post on Sunday that she understands the need to secure the borders but that the current situation reminds her of Japanese Internment Camps.

Michelle Obama retweeted Bush, adding that "sometimes truth transcends party."

Hillary Clinton also shared Bush's article and said there is no law to support the policy, tweeting that the situation is a "humanitarian crisis" and that parents should be "outraged."

Rosalynn Carter also weighed in, calling the policy a disgrace and that she has seen first hand the trauma of separating children from their parents.

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Pushing back on Trump, all Senate Dems now back bill to stop family separations

U.S. Customs and Border Protection(WASHINGTON) -- Senate Democrats are pushing back on President Donald Trump's false attack that they're to blame for immigrant children being separated from their parents, saying Monday all 49 of them now have signed on to new legislation that would halt the practice.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia became the 49th Democrat to sign on to the legislation on Monday.

"As a father, grandfather, and Christian, I am wholeheartedly opposed to any policy that allows innocent children to be separated from their parents as they enter our country," Manchin said in a statement.

The Senate's second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said he too opposes the practice and said he plans to re-introduce legislation that would "mitigate the problem of family separation while improving the immigration court process for unaccompanied children and families apprehended at the border."

"We have to keep family members together and prevent unnecessary hardship, stress, and outrage," Cornyn said. "The good news is we have it within our power to find a better way because parents who are awaiting court proceedings shouldn't have to do so separated from their children, and children shouldn't be taken from their parents and left frightened and confused about where they are and what is transpiring around them."

Also weighing in on the controversy: Senate Chaplain Barry Black.

Black is the 62nd chaplain of the Senate and the first African-American person to hold the position. Black acts as a spiritual adviser and counselor to senators, their families, and staff.

"As children are being separated from their parents, remind us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to protect the most vulnerable in our world," Black said during his daily prayer on the Senate floor.

Notably, the Office of the Chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian.

Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, went a step further Monday afternoon by calling on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign.

"It's time for Secretary Nielsen to resign. The government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing them apart. And the government should have a commitment to transparency and accountability. Under her tenure, DHS does not have a track record of either," Harris said in a statement.

President Trump has put the blame for the policy squarely on Democrats, claiming they're blocking his immigration reform legislation that he says would end family separation. On Monday, he tweeted: “It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder (sic) Security and Crime. Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!”

The White House on Monday sent a memo to congressional Republicans with talking points aimed at hitting Democrats on the issue.

"Congressional Democrats’ slavish support for open borders has created a humanitarian crisis at our border where criminal organizations smuggle hundreds of thousands of children across international boundaries, subjecting the children to unimaginable suffering and misery," the memo reads.

In another talking point, the memo asks why Democratic lawmakers and members of the media "believe illegal aliens are entitled to more rights than those afforded to American citizens."

The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, hit back and said if Trump wanted to change the policy, he could do it without congressional help.

“As everyone who has looked at this agrees, this was done by the president, not Democrats. He can fix it tomorrow if he wants to, and if he doesn’t want to, he should own up to the fact that he’s doing it,” Schumer said in a statement.

Amid growing criticism of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, Republicans in Congress are also now demanding answers, despite DHS insistence that there is no policy aimed at separating families.

“Contrary to what DHS has indicated as proper procedure, we are currently seeing cases where immigrant families seeking asylum are separated after lawfully presenting themselves at a U.S. port of entry. I believe DHS ought to respond to valid questions concerning asylum processing, including any policies pertaining to the separation of families,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said in a statement.

Flake and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, fired off a letter to the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services secretaries, Kristjen Nielsen and Alex Azar, seeking information regarding their respective departments' policies and procedures when migrant families approach legal U.S. ports of entry seeking asylum.

In the letter, Flake and Collins note Nielson’s recent appearance before members of the Senate for a hearing during which she testified that “immigrant parents and children who present themselves at U.S. ports of entry to request asylum will not be separated.”

Despite her testimony, DHS announced last week that between April and May this year, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents at the border.

“Ensuring the safety and security of young children is a longstanding priority of the American legal system. In asylum cases, it is especially important to keep families together when neither the child nor the parent has violated any laws,” Flake said.

On CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, Collins blasted the administration for the trauma children are faced with when they are separated from their parents.

“What the administration has decided to do is to separate children from their parents to try to send a message that if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you,” she said. “That is traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims and it is contrary to our values in this country.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on Monday said that members of Congress must forge ahead to find an immigration solution that is both bipartisan and compassionate.

“I am working with colleagues in both houses on a path forward that recognizes the need for compassion for children and families without incentivizing illegal border crossings. That solution can and should be bipartisan,” Hatch said in a statement.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania admitted that he didn’t know much about the impact of the administration’s policy, but he went on to say the separations are not the “right thing to be doing.”

“This is not my area of expertise, Hugh. I’m going to have to drill down into this and address it,” he said. “And maybe you’re right. Maybe this is happening with a higher frequency than I’ve been aware of, and it is certainly, it’s just not the right thing to be doing,” Toomey said.

On Monday, House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spent the day in San Diego County touring several of the area’s immigration detention facilities with several other members of Congress.

"This is not about immigration, this is about humanity," Pelosi said, adding that Democrats have zero tolerance for family separations.

Over the weekend, a group of Democratic lawmakers toured an immigration detention facility in New Jersey and met with detained asylum seekers who have been separated from their families.

"Today, on Father’s Day, we spoke to fathers whose children have been ripped from their arms, who have no idea when or if they will see their children again," Rep. Jerrold Nadler said during a press conference with reporters after the surprise visit.

The House Judiciary Committee Ranking member led the group of seven lawmakers — including Reps. Frank Pallone and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, and Reps. Albio Sires, Carolyn Maloney, Hakeem Jeffries and Adriano Espaillat of New York — for the excursion to the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey.

In an interview with ABC News, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey described his meeting with a father who doesn’t know where his five-year-old daughter is after they were separated at the border.

“The typical one was from Central America, and he came with his daughter who was about five,” Pallone said. “And you know he doesn't know where she is. He has heard that she may be in Michigan but there's no process for telling these fathers or parents where their children are.”

Pallone said many of the families are from rural towns and are seeking political asylum.

“In other words, they didn't come here for economic reasons because they're looking for a job,” Pallone said. “They came here because they were fleeing persecution.”

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Justice Department IG investigating Comey memos after FBI referral 

Kristoffer Tripplaar/For The Washington Post via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz acknowledged for the first time publicly Monday that his office is investigating fired FBI Director James Comey ’s private memos and whether any possible classified information in them was properly handled.

“We received a referral on that from the FBI, we are handling that referral and we will issue a report when the matter is complete,” Horowitz told the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to a question from chairman Chuck Grassley.

Comey documented his interactions with President-elect and then President Trump in a series of documents. Some of the memos were shared with a law professor with the intent that its contents be provided to the New York Times.

Grassley, an Iowa Republican, noted in his opening remarks that Comey had been invited to attend, but was unavailable due to foreign travel, though a tweet indicated he had spent the weekend in Iowa.

Horowitz appeared alongside FBI Director Chris Wray in a hearing about last week’s release of his long-awaited inspector general report about the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

President Trump suggested that the report cleared him of wrongdoing. “It totally exonerates me. There was no collusion. There was no obstruction,” Trump told reporters during an impromptu press conference Friday.

But Horowitz made it clear his report did no such thing. “We did not look into collusion questions,” Horowitz told the panel.

Following the release of the report, Trump also said that the Mueller probe was “totally discredited.” Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, asked Wray about whether that’s true.

“I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt,” Wray responded.

Democrats on the committee zeroed in on alleged leaks about the Hillary Clinton investigation to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who bragged about getting inside information on Fox News during the 2016 campaign.

Neither the Wray nor Horowitz would confirm or deny the existence of an investigation into the matter. Giuliani would go on to become an attorney for President Trump.

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Governors won't send Guard units to border if family separation continues

John Moore/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Three governors, including one Republican, say they will not send National Guard units to the U.S.-Mexico border if the Trump administration continues its practice of removing children from their parents who cross the border illegally.

President Donald Trump signed a proclamation in April authorizing the National Guard to help Customs and Border Protection secure the border. Defense Secretary James Mattis worked with state governors to send up to 4,000 troops to assist with operations at the border, including in administrative and surveillance work that would free up Customs and Border Protection personnel. Previous administrations have also authorized the Department of Defense to support the Department of Homeland Security when it comes to immigration.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said that his state "will not be party to this inhumane treatment of immigrant families," in a statement on Monday.

"Day after day, I am increasingly disturbed by the reports of disgraceful tactics used by ICE both in our own state and along our nation's border," Cuomo said in the statement.

Massachusetts' Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday that separating families was inhumane and that the state's National Guard will not send any troops to the border as planned.

“Governor Baker directed the National Guard not to send any assets or personnel to the Southwest border today because the federal government’s current actions are resulting in the inhumane treatment of children,” said Baker communications director Lizzy Guyton in a statement sent to WGBH News.

The administration continues to say that they are simply enforcing the law, and Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen condemned reports from news organizations and advocacy groups about families separated at the border.

Another Democrat, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, signed an executive order that says no state resources will be used for the purpose of separating children from their families for violating federal immigration law.

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Everything you need to know about Trump's 'Space Force'

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- President Trump on Monday announced that he was directing the creation of a "Space Force" as a sixth service, adding to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

"It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space," Trump said at a meeting of the National Space Council. "Very importantly, I'm hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces, that is a big statement. We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the space force, separate but equal, it is going to be something."

Trump directs creation of 'space force' as sixth branch of military

Despite opposition from top military officials, Trump has long expressed an interest in developing a separate space force. Here's what we know about its possible creation:

CAN TRUMP CREATE A SIXTH SERVICE? Not without Congress. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who serves as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted his opposition to a separate service, pointing out that the creation of a "Space Force" would take congressional action. But there has been support from other congressional members (more on that below).

The U.S. Air Force was created through the 1947 National Security Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Harry Truman. This same act created the Department of Defense and what is known now as the current U.S. military structure, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense as overseer of the entire U.S. military.

WHAT WOULD A SPACE FORCE DO? In a purely military sense, Space Force has been discussed as overseeing the next war-fighting domain of space, similar to air, sea, and ground domains. This involves satellites and new technologies used in space.

WHO HANDLES THE SPACE DOMAIN RIGHT NOW? The Air Force currently houses the U.S. military's space capabilities, and the service has not been too keen on seeing a separate force developed. Trump said on Monday that a Space Force would be "separate but equal" to the Air Force.

In a letter last summer to Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, who spearheaded the congressional effort against a separate space force, Mattis said he was opposed to the idea. "At a time when we are trying to integrate the department's joint war-fighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations," Mattis wrote. Since then, Mattis has appeared more open to the idea of a separate force. In late May, he said, "But to look now at the problem, means we have to look afresh at it, and where are the specific problems, break them down, and if an organizational construct has to change, then I'm wide open to it."

WHAT HAS THE PENTAGON BEEN DOING ABOUT A POTENTIAL SPACE FORCE? For several months now, the Department of Defense has been engaged in an ongoing review, due August 1st, that will be presented to Congress on what changes might be needed to create a separate space force, apart from the Air Force. The interim assessment was completed this month, but it's conclusions haven't been released and remain unknown to the public.

WHAT DOES THE HOUSE AND SENATE THINK ABOUT SPACE FORCE? The language in the 2019 House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) seeks to establish a fighting force, housed within the Air Force, which would be dedicated to space war-fighting, giving it less autonomy than a separate force would. It also would require the Secretary of the Air Force to increase the number and improve the quality of its civilian and military “space cadre,” submitting a report to Congress on its plans by next March. The Senate’s bill has no language on a space force, but an aide said last year’s NDAA provided a “pretty significant homework assignment” for the Air Force to focus on with regard to space, including standing up Air Force Space Command as the single authority for all decisions related to space security. “The committee is waiting to see what comes out of the department on that,” the aide said.

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Nielsen defends family separation as simply enforcing the law: 'We will not apologize' 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions both offered a full-throated defense of the administration's immigration enforcement policies that lead to separation of families on the border.

"To a select few in the media, Congress and the advocacy community, I'd like to start with a message for you: this department will no longer stand by and watch you attack law enforcement for enforcing the laws passed by Congress," Nielsen said, speaking to the National Sheriffs' Association in New Orleans.

"We will not apologize for the job we do, for the job law enforcement does and for the job the American people expect us to do."

Nielsen went after critics head-on.

"I want to take a minute to address the consequences of actually enforcing our immigration law. There has been much outcry, consternation, frankly misinformation in the media, press and advocacy groups around the country the last few weeks, that we at DHS are intentionally doing things that are un-humanitarian, that are cruel, immoral and disgraceful," she said. "We are doing none of those things. We are enforcing the laws passed by Congress and we are doing all that we can in the executive branch to protect our communities," she continued.

Nielsen insisted there were only two options: release the family that has crossed the border, which she referred too as the historic "get out of jail free practice," or prosecute the parents.

"The adult and the minor will be separated as a result of prosecuting the adult. Those are the only two options," She went on to say that it is the "unraveling of democracy" - when Congress asks DHS not to enforce the law.

Later in the morning, the Attorney General echoed her points.

"We do not want to separate children from their parents. We do not want adults to bring children into this country unlawfully either, placing those children at risk. But we do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our laws to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry," the Attorney General said.

Nielsen countered critics who say detained children are being mistreated.

"It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of - don't believe the press. They are very well taken care of, we know this because many of you have detention facilities of your own. We operate in some of the highest standards in the country. We provide food, medical, education, all needs that the child requests," she said. "Let's be honest, there are some that would like us to look the other way when dealing with families at the border and not enforce the law passed by members of Congress, including unfortunately some members of Congress."

Sessions defended the conditions under which they are being held as well.

"In total, when a child is brought here in that fashion or parents are prosecuted, the children are turned over within hours to the department of health and human services. They are not put in jail of course. They are taken care of," Sessions said.

And he again raised the prospect of family separation would be a deterrent.

"Because we send a message, a bad message to those crossing illegally if you bring children you can avoid prosecution and deportation," he said. Sessions went on to say that they didn't want to separate families but was necessary until the wall is built.

The "zero tolerance" policy, which Sessions introduced in April, calls for prosecution of any person who crosses the border illegally. The policy leads to separation of families along the southern border - with adults going to correctional facilities and children in the custody of HHS.

Sessions and Nielsen were met with protests outside the event, leading to five people being arrested by Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies.

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Border crisis roils key campaigns in the battle for Congress

David McNew/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Candidates across the country and from both parties in key midterm races are grappling with how to respond to the backlash over the controversial separation of undocumented immigrants and their young children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

It is a situation that is becoming more complicated by the day and by a president who as recently as Monday doubled down on his charged rhetoric.

Texas Rep. Will Hurd, who faces a competitive race this fall in a swing district that spans some 800 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border, pushed back on the policy Monday morning, the day after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's denial over the weekend that the Trump administration has a policy of separating families at the border.

There is currently no law mandating separation of families, and the so-called "zero-tolerance" policy on illegal border crossings, set forth by Trump and implemented by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has come under sharp criticism by lawmakers, advocates, and the religious community. That policy has led to children being separated from parents caught illegally crossing the border.

"This is part of the problem with this administration on this policy. There's different elements of the government that don't understand what's really going on," Hurd told NPR's Morning Edition in an interview, "This is just absolutely unacceptable, taking kids from their mothers is not preventing terrorists or drugs from coming into this country."

Nielsen defended the administration and her department's handling of the situation Monday at a conference of the National Sheriff's Association in New Orleans.

"It's important to understand that these minors are very well taken care of. Don't believe the press," Nielsen said.

Hurd's Democratic opponent Gina Ortiz Jones, a U.S. Air Force Veteran a first-generation American, joined a march to Tornillo, Texas, a port of entry into the United States, to protest the policy alongside other Democratic candidates running in Texas this cycle, including U.S. Senate candidate and El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke and gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez.

O'Rourke, the Democratic challenger to incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, directly disputed Nielsen's claim that the administration does not have a policy of separating families, tweeting Monday morning, "You do. I’ve met moms held in cells w their young kids before you take them. Seen the kids behind cyclone fences after you’ve “unaccompanied” them. Been w parents prosecuted like common criminals for doing what any parent would do, through tears asking me where their kids are."

Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, the Democratic vying to unseat GOP Rep. John Culberson in a swing district in the Houston suburbs, urged Congress to protect both families seeing asylum at the border, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

"There is no doubt that we need to fix our immigration system, and the residents in this district have told me how concerned they are about doing so," Fletcher said in a statement provided to ABC News, "Right now, Congress needs to perform its essential function to check the Administration’s devastating separation of asylum-seeking families at the border and needs to keep the promises we made to DREAMERs."

While the controversy has become front and center in many high-profile Texas races, it's impact has spread to races across the country.

In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is hoping to unseat GOP Sen. Dean Heller, joined a group of her colleagues in condemning the separation of families at the border.

"The images we’re seeing of children crying alone while being held in detention centers are heart-wrenching and demand action from Congress," Rosen wrote in a press release last week, "Parents are being separated from their kids every day, even though there is no mandate in the law requiring border agents to do so."

In a break from the Trump administration, Heller said he does not support the policy of separating families, and called on Congress to act to solve the problem.

"Senator Heller doesn’t support separating children from their families, and he believes that this issue highlights just how broken our immigration system is and why Congress must act to fix it," read a statement from Heller's office provided to ABC News.

In a sign that Democrats appear united in their opposition to the policy, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced Monday that the party's entire caucus in the Senate supports her bill to end the separation of families at the U.S. Mexico border, dubbed the "Keep Families Together Act."

In Florida, competitive races for the U.S. Senate and governor's mansion, coupled with the political omnipresence of sitting Gov. Rick Scott, has generated a number of passionate responses from candidates of both parties.

"First the reports you see, it’s disturbing, it’s disgusting. It just shows you that Congress has not done their job," Gov. Scott, who is mounting a bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, told a local television station, "We need to have an immigration policy that people understand, we need to secure our borders, but we can’t have people being treated unfairly."

Andrew Gillum, the current mayor of Tallahassee and a Democratic candidate running in the race to succeed Scott as the state's next governor, lambasted Scott for not speaking out forcefully enough during a "moral crisis."

"I demand that Governor Scott — who is now asking for our vote to be our next Senator — stand up to the Trump Administration and support S. 3036, the Keeping Families Together Act," Gillum wrote in a statement released Sunday, "Yesterday he didn’t have much to say on this crisis, but in times of moral crisis we need our leaders to step forward. We demand the reconciliation and reunification of families."

Former Democratic Rep. Gwen Graham, another contender in the gubernatorial race, weighed in with a short response to President Trump's Monday morning barrage of immigration-related tweets.

In the border state of Arizona, which is also holding elections for the U.S. Senate and governor's mansion in November, one Democratic gubernatorial candidate

"Ducey is either afraid of Trump or he agrees with him; either way his silence is de facto support for Trump. Arizona needs a governor with the guts to say to Trump that what he is doing is inhumane, un-American and it must stop now," Garcia wrote in a statement last week.

Ducey, who officially launched his re-election campaign Monday, did not respond to ABC News' request for comment on the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In California, a Democratic running in a heated congressional race in Orange County called the separation of families "immoral."

"Immigrant children should not be separated and put in cages. Refusing abused women seeking asylum is immoral," Democratic candidate Harley Rouda, who is one of two Democrats hoping to take on GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, tweeted last week.

While candidates in swing states and districts spar over the controversy, President Trump again inserted himself into the debate.

Just this morning, the President continued to fume on Twitter over inaction on the issue of immigration, pointing the finger once again at Democrats who he claims aren't coming to the table to negotiate, a claim many Democrats dispute and say is disingenuous.

"If the Democrats would sit down instead of obstructing we could have something done very quickly," President Trump said Monday from the White House at a meeting with the National Space Council.

In a rare policy statement released over the weekend, first lady Melania Trump urged Congress to find a bipartisan solution to the issue.

"Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart," a statement released Sunday from the First Lady's Communications Director Stephanie Grisham read.

Former first lady Laura Bush called the separation of families at the border "cruel" in an op-ed published over the weekend in the Washington Post.

"I live in a border state. 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," Bush wrote.

Amidst the back and forth between campaigns, the president, and multiple cabinet members is a Congress that continues to struggle to find a bipartisan consensus on the issue of immigration.

Neither of the immigration bills slated for a vote this week in Congress looks like they have garnered enough support from a majority of the Republican Party or a coalition that stretches across party lines.

The House is expected to take up two GOP immigration bills this week that will each include a provision Republicans say would keep unaccompanied alien children together with parents and legal guardians while in the custody of the Justice Department or Department of Homeland security. Critics argue that the provision would allow the government to keep families in custody indefinitely.

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