Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, Sanders invoked the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating mothers from their children.
She was speaking at Thursday’s White House briefing, in response to a question about comments made by the attorney general Jeff Sessions, where he cited a passage in the Bible to justify the policy.
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” said Sessions.
He added: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
Sanders was asked about Sessions’ statement, and was challenged: “Where does it say in the Bible that’s moral to take children away from mothers?”
Pushing back, Sanders said: “I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing, [but] I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.”
The policy of separating undocumented parents from their children at the border was announced by Sessions in May as part of a “zero-tolerance policy”.
He said at the time: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
It has since met a wide range of criticism including from the United Nations human rights office as well as from prominent evangelical groups.
Sanders blamed congressional Democrats for the situation, a view shared by Trump on Twitter.
Earlier this week, Trump said: “Separating families at the Border is the fault of bad legislation passed by the Democrats. Border Security laws should be changed but the Dems can’t get their act together! Started the Wall.”
The decision to separate minors from their parents was a policy decision and not a matter of law. Previously, children and parents had often been kept together in shelters as they awaited hearings on their asylum status or potential deportation.
Heartrending stories about children being separated from their parents at the border and placed in detention collided with negotiations on Capitol Hill over a compromise immigration bill.
In a draft proposal, published by several news outlets on Thursday, the Republican plan would end the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents in addition to providing legal protections for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
The Republican bill would also ensure more than $23bn in border security, a majority of which would be used to build a wall along the border with Mexico. The House is expected to vote on the bill and an alternative, more conservative plan next week.
The White House defence came as it emerged that the US government will open a temporary shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children in far west Texas, as existing facilities for children reach capacity under the zero-tolerance policy.
A spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday that the department had selected the Tornillo port of entry as a temporary shelter location, 40 miles south-east of El Paso, in an area of desert where temperatures routinely approach 100F (37C).
The facility will be able to accommodate up to 360 children in “the next few days,” said the spokesman, Kenneth Wolfe.
Asked if children will be kept in tents, Wolfe said the facility would have “soft-sided structures,” but didn’t immediately clarify what those structures would be.
The numbers of children in existing facilities have surged as the Trump administration institutes a policy of trying to prosecute all people who cross the southern US border without legal permission.
Hundreds of families have been separated, with parents detained and their children placed in government shelters.
On Wednesday, government officials gave a tightly controlled tour of a shelter in Brownsville, Texas, at the other end of the state. Located inside a former Walmart, the shelter is housing nearly 1,500 children.
Many other facilities in the US government network are at or close to capacity.
State representative Mary Gonzalez, whose district includes the port of entry, said government officials had contacted her about two weeks ago to offer a tour of the port of entry, but included few other details.
“It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “It’s in the desert. There is nowhere to go outside, really.”
She added: “I don’t understand where they’re going to put these kids.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report