US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rejected claims US holding centres for child migrants separated from parents are like Nazi concentration camps.
America’s top law official told Fox News the “zero tolerance” policy was about enforcing border security.
President Donald Trump is meeting Republican lawmakers later to discuss a bill that proposes to curb the policy.
US immigration officials say 2,342 children have been separated from 2,206 parents from 5 May to 9 June.
- Psychological impact on separated children
- Mixed messages on US migrant policy
- Why US is separating migrant children from parents
Mr Sessions was asked on Fox News about a tweet by former CIA Director Michael Hayden likening what happened at Auschwitz concentration camp, where millions of Jews and other minorities were killed, to the separation of undocumented immigrant families at the US border.
“Well, it’s a real exaggeration, of course,” the Department of Justice chief said in Monday night’s interview.
“In Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.”
Mr Sessions said: “Fundamentally, we are enforcing the law. Hopefully people will get the message and not break across the border unlawfully.”
Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham said the detention centres were “essentially summer camps” for migrant children.
It is not the first historical analogy inspired by the policy – former US First Lady Laura Bush has compared it to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
What are migrants’ countries of origin saying?
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso said on Tuesday the separation of children from parents at the US border was “cruel and inhuman”, and clearly violated human rights.
El Salvador and Honduras have also asked the US to end the policy.
The Salvadoran foreign ministry issued a statement on Monday saying the US policy was “exposing children to extremely adverse conditions”.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said after a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “Our position is that families should not be separated.”
Guatemala has refrained from criticising the US, saying only that it respects other nations’ migration policy.
What is the policy?
Under the “zero-tolerance” crackdown that the Trump administration rolled out in May, all border crossers – including first-time offenders – are criminally charged and jailed pending a court appearance.
Migrant children are not permitted to be incarcerated with their parents, and are kept in separate facilities maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under previous US administrations, undocumented immigrants caught crossing the border for the first time tended to be issued with court summonses.
But the Trump administration points out that many of those migrants never showed up to court.
The Trump administration has been disputing the terminology used to describe its immigration crackdown.
The Department of Homeland Security has framed it as an “initiative” rather than “a policy”.
It characterises the holding centres where children have been pictured behind metal chain-link enclosures with concrete floors as “shelters” instead of “cages”.
A lawyer defending the detained immigrants tells the Boston Globe that several of her clients had been told by Border Patrol agents that their children were being taken to be bathed – a tactic that has drawn further comparisons to the Holocaust.
As the hours passed the mothers began to realise their children were not going to be immediately returned, according to lawyer Azalea Aleman-Bendiks.
What are Trump and Congress doing?
On Tuesday afternoon, the Republican president is due to head to Congress, which is controlled by members of his party, as the House of Representatives prepares this week to vote on a moderate immigration bill.
The compromise measure would limit, but not outright ban family separations. It would also offer an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented adult immigrants, known as Dreamers, who entered the US as children.
The Republican legislation would also provide $25bn (£19bn) in funding for border security, including Mr Trump’s planned US-Mexico wall.
The White House says Mr Trump supports the package.
A hardline conservative immigration bill is also in circulation, though it lacks enough support to be politically viable.
More on US immigration
- Trump’s blame game on separating families
- Do other countries separate migrant families?
- WATCH: Where do undocumented US migrants live?
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Sessions: Child migrant camps ‘not like Nazi concentration camps’