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Salvadoran migrant Epigmenio Centeno and his sons, nine-year-old Axel Jaret, left, and three-year-old Steven Atonay, are photographed outside a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on June 19, 2018, after deciding to stay in Mexico due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s child-separation policy.

JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ/Reuters

The images are striking: More than 2,000 children, separated from their parents and housed in cages, camps and a former Walmart.

This is the upshot of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy at the Mexican border. People caught crossing illegally now face automatic criminal prosecution. This has meant the breakup of families, with children held in hastily arranged detention facilities while their parents are hauled off to jail.

In a rambling speech to the National Federation of Independent Business on Tuesday, Mr. Trump doubled down. He demanded Congress give his administration more power to detain and deport illegal immigrants, blamed migrants for murdering Americans and implied immigration judges are taking “graft.”

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“Those are the only two options: Totally open borders or criminal prosecution for law breaking,” he said. “We have no wall. We have no border security. Without a border, you don’t have a country.”

Families separated, children detained: What we know so far about Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy

A wide-ranging coalition is firing back, with human-rights advocates, state attorneys-general, lawmakers from both parties, former first ladies and business groups all demanding Mr. Trump stop separating families.

The President on Tuesday evening met with the Republican congressional caucus, which is debating two immigration bills this week that could grant Mr. Trump enough of a political victory to back down.

The internment of children has quickly become the flashpoint in Mr. Trump’s signature war on immigration – a signal of how far the President will go to crack down at the border, and a bargaining chip in his demands for congressional funding for his long-promised wall.

Why are families being separated at the border?

Mr. Trump’s Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, announced last month that everyone caught jumping the border from Mexico into the United States will be criminally charged. Previously, many of these people only faced the regular immigration-processing system without being prosecuted.

As a result, children are taken away from their parents, because they cannot be taken to adult jails.

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“We are not going to let this country be overwhelmed,” he said in a speech in San Diego. “People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border.”

The administration argues it is necessary to prosecute illegal border crossers to keep them in government custody and make sure they are deported. Under former president Barack Obama, immigration authorities attempted to keep migrants in custody under the regular immigration system, but judges ruled it was illegal to hold children in long-term detention.

What are the immigration bills before Congress?

The House of Representatives is set to vote, likely on Thursday, on two major pieces of legislation that toughen border security and help some people brought to the United States as children stay in the country.

The more conservative bill, moved by judiciary committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, would make it a criminal offence to overstay a visa in the United States; cut legal immigration by 25 per cent; and allow recipients of the now-cancelled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – which covered some people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children – to remain in the United States on three-year renewable work visas.

A second bill, negotiated between Speaker Paul Ryan and the White House, would promise $25-billion for Mr. Trump’s wall, to be delivered by a future Congress; make it easier for authorities to detain families and quickly deport them to Mexico; cut some legal immigration; and offer renewable six-year visas for DACA recipients.

Mr. Trump has said he will sign either bill into law. Whether either one can reach his desk, however, is an open question. The immigration cuts will deny them much Democratic support, and the Republicans will have to unite the moderate and conservative wings of their fractious caucus.

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A group of 12 Republican senators demanded on Tuesday that Mr. Trump stop the “zero-tolerance” policy until Congress can pass legislation. One legislative solution, proposed by Texas senator Ted Cruz, is to order families be kept together, with new detention facilities built for that purpose.

How are people reacting?

Mr. Trump has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum over the separation of children.

In an open letter, 74 former U.S. lawyers – prosecutors appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents – argue the policy has led to the “unnecessary trauma and suffering of innocent children” and is a waste of resources. Prosecutors’ time is better spent fighting terrorism, human trafficking and drug smuggling than going after border jumpers, who would face a maximum sentence of just a year in prison.

Meanwhile, 21 current attorneys-general of Democratic states have demanded Mr. Sessions revoke the policy, which they describe as “contrary to American values.”

U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue, head of the country’s largest business lobby, also called on Mr. Trump to stop splitting up families: “There is no other way to say it, this is not who we are and it must end now.”

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