WASHINGTON (CNN) - Former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both denounced the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy that is contributing to the high number of children being separated from their families by the US government once they illegally cross the border.
"Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?" Trump's Democratic predecessor wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday marking World Refugee Day.
Obama argued that "to find a way to welcome the refugee and the immigrant -- to be big enough and wise enough to uphold our laws and honor our values at the same time -- is part of what makes us American."
"Whether our families crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we're only here because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, how our last names sound, or the way we worship," Obama wrote.
Biden called for an end to family separations, saying it "is fundamentally at odds with everything this nation stands for and believes."
"A policy that separates young children from their parents isn't a 'deterrent'. It's unconscionable. A policy that traumatizes children isn't a bargaining chip. It's abhorrent," Biden wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday.
"And a President and an administration that continues this policy isn't protecting our border and our people. It threatens to make us a pariah in the world."
How the Obama administration handled families at the border
The Trump administration decided in May to start criminally charging any and every adult crossing over the border illegally.
The policy has resulted in a spike in children -- more than 2,000 migrant children -- being separated from their families and placed in facilities under government care.
The two-decade-old Flores court settlement lays out that undocumented children in families are to be released from detention within three weeks and placed in "the least restrictive environment."
But conservative websites have pointed to photos from a detention center in 2014 to claim the Obama administration also separated immigrant children from their families under the same circumstances.
The Obama administration did house minors who showed up at the border unaccompanied and would separate children from adults in certain circumstances, including concern for their well-being or inability to verify the adult was the guardian or parent of the child.
Under Obama, the US government did not have a practice of prosecuting parents for crossing the border illegally, thus separating them from their children, or intentionally separating parents and children into different facilities as a deterrent measure.
The idea of separating families came up during the Obama years, a former DHS official told CNN, but it was never seriously considered.
After the 2014 child migrant surge crisis, and because of the Flores case, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson asked for "all available options" to deal with illegal immigration at the border, the source said.
That included separating families, but it was "discussed and immediately dismissed" because of the immense humanitarian concerns.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Obama's first Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, confirmed that the option of separating families did arise, but "it was pretty clear off the bat that this would not be a good idea."
Napolitano also said the administration detained families, but "stopped after a pretty short period of time."
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Jeh Johnson was Homeland Security secretary in 2014.
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