Nicole Hernandez, of the Mexican state of Guerrero, holds on to her mother as they wait with other families to request political asylum in the United States, across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. Image Credit: AP

WASHINGTON : The Trump administration said Friday that it had separated 1,995 children from parents facing criminal prosecution for unlawfully crossing the border over a six-week period that ended last month, as President Donald Trump sought to shift blame for the widely criticized practice that has become the signature policy of his aggressive immigration agenda.

From April 19 to May 31, the children were separated from 1,940 adults, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said during a conference call with reporters that had been described as an effort to correct the record about immigrant families being split up at the border.

Administration officials insisted on anonymity to explain the president's policy and deny many of the damaging stories that have appeared about it. That included an anecdote about a 4-month-old taken from her mother by immigration authorities as the baby was breast-feeding, which one official said the department had tried unsuccessfully to verify.

"I hate the children being taken away," Trump told reporters Friday morning at the White House. "The Democrats have to change their law - that's their law."

A short time later, he wrote on Twitter, "The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda."

But Trump was misrepresenting his own policy. There is no law that says children must be taken from their parents if they cross the border unlawfully, and previous administrations have made exceptions for those traveling with minor children when prosecuting immigrants for illegal entry. A zero-tolerance policy created by the president in April and put into effect last month allows no such exceptions, Trump's advisers say.

The president's efforts to deflect blame for the practice reflected the degree to which it has become politically unpopular, with Democrats, civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups and religious leaders condemning it as inhumane.

As the number of children in its custody grows beyond the capacity of detention centers, the Trump administration reportedly plans to erect a tent city in Tornillo, Texas, to house them.

The homeland security official said the administration had drawn a "bright line" against taking babies from their parents because the government was unable to appropriately care for children that young but could not immediately provide information about the age cutoff below which they would decline to take a child.