WASHINGTON – Nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families at the U.S. border over a six-week period during a crackdown on illegal entries, according to Department of Homeland Security figures obtained Friday.

The figures show that 1,995 minors were separated from 1,940 adults from April 19 through May 31. The separations were not broken down by age, and included separations for illegal entry, immigration violations or possible criminal conduct by the adult.

Under a zero-tolerance policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Department of Homeland Security officials are now referring all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.

Sessions announced the effort April 6, and Homeland Security began stepping up referrals in early May, effectively putting the policy into action.

Since then, stories of weeping children torn from the arms of their frightened parents have flooded the media and the policy has been widely criticized by church groups, politicians and children’s advocates who say it is inhumane. A battle in Congress is brewing in part over the issue.

Multiple reports in recent days have described situations where parents were told by immigration agents that their children were being taken for a bath only to later find out they had been taken away indefinitely.

Some immigrant advocates have said women were being separated from their infants — a charge Homeland Security and Justice officials flatly denied. They also said the children were being well cared for and disputed reports of disorder and mistreatment at the border.

On Thursday, Sessions cited the Bible in defending the policy, arguing the recent criticisms were not “fair or logical and some are contrary to law.”

“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 them for the purpose of order,” he said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders backed his line of thinking. 

“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,” she said during a briefing Thursday. “It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”

The International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid group, released a statement Friday saying, “A policy of willing cruelty to those people, and using young sons and daughters as pawns, shatters America’s strong foundation of humanitarian sensibility and family values.”

The new figures are for people who tried to enter the U.S. between official border crossings. Asylum seekers who go directly to official crossings are not separated from their families, except in specific circumstances — such as if officials can’t confirm the relationship between the minors and adults, if the safety of the children is in question, or if the adult is being prosecuted.

There were an additional 38 minors separated at ports of entry in May through June 6. There were more than 55 in April and a high of 64 in March, according to the figures.

Immigrant activists in Minnesota decried the zero-tolerance crackdown as inhumane.

“It’s as if the United States has suddenly become a pariah in international human rights,” said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. “If this was another country that would be doing this, the U.S. under any other administration would be condemning the practice.”

Catalina Morales was 12 years old when she crossed the border with her mother more than a decade ago. The experience was traumatizing, she said.

“Now at 27, I think about the children who are coming into the country and are stripped from their parents. It’s not only inhumane and demoralizing, it’s one of the worst atrocities this country is responsible for,” Morales said. “I can’t imagine the pain that these children are going through to have the only person you know and trust be taken away … The government will be responsible for the trauma that these children will carry for the rest of their lives.”

Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.