WASHINGTON — Trump administration policies that are separating families on the Southwest border prompted a furious backlash in Congress from Democrats and left Republicans frantically scrambling Tuesday to stop what both term a “cruel and inhumane” practice.
President Donald Trump traveled to Capitol Hill and urged Republican lawmakers to provide a legislative fix to his “zero-tolerance” approach to border enforcement that has separated more than 2,000 children from parents.
A compromise immigration bill includes that fix, and also addresses what to do with undocumented immigrant children known as Dreamers. However, it was still uncertain whether the GOP would be able to muster the votes to pass a bill this week, despite the rising ire among lawmakers in both parties to stop child separations.
Earlier Tuesday, during a speech to the National Federation of Independent Business, Trump said there were two options for dealing with the crisis: release the minors and adults trying to get into this country from Central America, or arrest the adults for illegal entry.
“Those are the only two options,” he said.
But media reports and pictures of children being separated from parents created an uproar in Congress where lawmakers from both parties were trying to respond to the administration enforcement approach.
“We are going to fix this problem,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.
The Senate’s second highest ranking Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, called it a “crisis,” adding, “We have to keep family members together and prevent unnecessary hardship, stress, and outrage.”
Cornyn said he hoped to reach a consensus with Democrats on a legislative solution that would fix the problem not in weeks, not months “but a matter of days.”
Senators urge delaying policy
Democrats bristled at Trump’s claim that they were responsible for a law that his administration announced in April it would enforce as a deterrent to undocumented immigration.
“No law requires a separation of families at the border,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “That is not true.”
Schumer said anyone who has watched television and seen the pictures and videos of the children being stripped away or stranded “cannot help but feel horror and disgust. This is not America.”
Saying the Trump policy harkened back to memories of “Nazi Germany,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the Keep Families Together Act, which was co-sponsored by 31 Democrats in the Senate, including Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
“Congress cannot stand idly by while an overwhelming number of children stay in crowded detention facilities and their parents are left in the dark as to their whereabouts and well-being,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.
A similar bill was to be filed in the House by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., is an original co-sponsor of the bill.
“Innocent children who are being detained at the border, including babies and toddlers, are going through unthinkable trauma as a result of being separated from their parents,” Rosen said.
The House and Senate bills would limit asylum prosecutions, call for more training for Customs and Border Protection personnel, establish policy for family reunification to discourage separations and add procedures to be followed once separations have occurred.
Meanwhile, Cornyn said he would reintroduce legislation from 2014 called the Humane Act, which would set policy for addressing undocumented immigrant families that are separated after unlawful entry.
Opposition to zero-tolerance to illegal immigration = tolerance of illegal immigration without a plan to enforce the law. We will provide both a way to enforce the law and a humane and compassionate family unification proposal for Congress to vote on soon.
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) June 19, 2018
Cornyn said a provision would improve the immigration court process for unaccompanied children or families apprehended at the border.
“To the greatest extent possible, families presenting at ports of entry or apprehended crossing the border illegally will be kept together while waiting for their court hearings, which will be expedited,” Cornyn said.
But Trump said earlier in the day that he did not want additional judges or expansion of facilities.
Cruz offers legislation
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican facing re-election, also announced he is filing legislation that would streamline asylum cases and speedy deportations in order to keep families together and not apart. He cast his bill as a contrast to Feinstein’s legislation, which Cruz said would release detainees and create new legal loopholes.
As lawmakers grappled with the crisis, a coalition of Democratic states attorneys general called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop enforcement of the separation policy.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and nearly two dozen other attorneys general from other states signed onto the letter asking the administration to stop the practice and instead focus on drug trafficking and other crimes.
The frantic scramble by Republicans in the Senate comes just days before the House was expected to vote on two immigration bills that leadership was forced to address by rebellious GOP lawmakers.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., one of 23 moderate Republicans who sought a vote on an immigration bill addressing undocumented immigrant children, said he was still undecided on the newest version of the compromise until he could read the legislation.
But he said he supports ending the separation of children, and a policy that would keep parents and children housed by the Department of Health and Human Services, not dividing them between two federal departments.
Both bills under consideration would address the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy that provided deportation protection for undocumented immigrants who grew up in this country. One bill, a conservative measure, would grant continued temporary protections, while another would provide a path for eventual citizenship.
Trump, who has shifted policy goals on immigration, told House lawmakers he supported the compromise bill.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who heads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said it was unknown whether GOP leaders could get the 218 votes needed.
“There is not a lot of room for error,” Meadows said.