Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible on Thursday in defending the Trump administration's immigration policies -- especially those that result in the separation of families -- directing his remarks in particular to "church friends."
"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 the government for his purposes," Sessions said. "Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified."
The Catholic Church and other religious leaders have voiced strong criticism of policies resulting in family separations and recent moves Sessions has made to restrict asylum.
On Wednesday, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the administration, declaring that separating mothers and children at the US border is "immoral."
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the organization, said in a statement, "Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."
Sessions said Thursday that recent criticisms are "not fair, not logical and some are contrary to plain law."
"It's not as if we just want to see if we can be mean to children. That's not what this is about," he said, saying he's thought about this issue for years.
God told Nehemiah to build a wall when he got back to Jerusalem, Sessions said, once again referencing the Bible.
"That's the first thing he told him to do," Sessions said. "It wasn't to keep people in. It was to keep bad people out. I don't think there is a scriptural basis that justifies any idea that we must have open borders in the world today."
Sessions repeated many of his recent comments that any separation from children is the fault of the parents who choose to bring them into the country illegally, and repeatedly said immigrants should "wait your turn" and try to come to the US legally. He disputed that he's restricting asylum, saying he is merely restoring his view of what the law always has been.
He was referring to his recent use of a power of the attorney general, a political appointee, to overrule a board of immigration judges in their interpretation of the law. Sessions earlier this week announced a new interpretation of asylum law that reversed an earlier decision in declaring that victims of domestic violence and other crimes and violence are generally not eligible for asylum in the US.
"Noncitizens who cross our borders unlawfully, between our ports of entry, with children, are no exception to this principle," Sessions said. "They are the ones who broke the law. They are the ones who endangered their children with this trek."
He said the US goes through "extraordinarily lengths" to care for the children.
"I have considered the thoughts of church leaders over that time. And I am sympathetic to them. But I am a law officer. A law officer for a nation-state. A secular nation-state. Not a theocracy. It's not a church. If we have laws -- and I believe we have reasonable immigration laws -- they should be enforced," Sessions said. "My request to our religious leaders and friends who have criticized the carrying out of our laws: I ask them to speak up forcefully, strongly, to urge anyone who would come here to only come lawfully."