National News

Republican Rifts Hinder Plans on Immigration

Posted June 19, 2018 9:35 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans moved on Tuesday to defuse an escalating political crisis over immigration, but failed to agree on how to end President Donald Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from parents who cross illegally into the United States.

The Senate had one plan, and the House another. Trump remained defiant, refusing to act on his own.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said that “all of the members of the Republican conference support a plan that keeps families together,” endorsing quick passage of a narrow bill to provide legal authority to detain parents and children together while the courts consider their status.

In the House, Republicans vowed to press ahead with votes this week on a pair of more sweeping immigration bills drafted by conservatives and moderates, claiming they would address the family separation issue while overhauling the nation’s immigration system. In an hourlong meeting on Capitol Hill with House Republicans, Trump declined to explicitly back either one, saying he would sign both bills.

“The president was very firm in explaining why it’s so important that he gets this bill to his desk so that we can solve some problems and secure our border,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the Republican whip. He added, “We want to secure our border, we want to reunite kids. Our bill does just that.”

In a fiery address to a business group earlier in the day, Trump falsely blamed Democrats for the separation crisis and demanded a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, a process that would take months. At the same time, he belittled one of the central ideas behind the effort by Senate Republicans to immediately stop separating families on the Mexican border.

McConnell said he planned to reach out to Democrats to support the effort, hoping to stanch the political damage from the administration's zero-tolerance policy that has led to heartbreaking stories of children separated from their mothers.

But Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, immediately shot down the Republican approach, saying that Trump could — and should — use his executive authority, not legislation, to quickly end the family separations.

“Anyone who believes this Republican Congress is capable of addressing this issue is kidding themselves,” Schumer said in a statement. “The president can end this crisis with the flick of his pen, and he needs to do so now.”

The president has the power own his own to change that “zero tolerance” policy at the border, which would once again allow border agents and prosecutors the discretion to allow families to remain together after crossing the border illegally. But it would allow those families to be released while their court proceedings go forward, something Trump opposes.

In his afternoon speech, Trump dismissed as “crazy” several of the Republican proposals by Senate Republicans to expedite processing of immigrant families by hiring hundreds of new immigration judges.

Rejecting a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to increase personnel in immigration courts with the hiring of up to 375 new judges, Trump suggested that many of the immigration judges could be corrupt, and he said some lawyers who appear in their courtrooms are “bad people.”

“They said, ‘Sir, we’d like to hire about five or six thousand more judges,'” Trump said in a long and rambling speech to the National Federation of Independent Business. “Five or six thousand? Now, can you imagine the graft that must take place? You’re all small-business owners, so I know you can’t imagine a thing like that would happen.”

Trump has for weeks been urging lawmakers to pass broad legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, including hard-line changes that would crack down on asylum-seekers, reduce visas and spend $25 billion to build a border wall. Doing so, he said, would have ended the need for a zero-tolerance policy by allowing families to be quickly deported.

Broad immigration legislation was supposed to be the subject of the meeting with Republican House members on Tuesday afternoon. But in his speech, the president also vowed to rewrite Republican immigration legislation to his liking.

“We have a House that’s getting ready to finalize an immigration package that they are going to brief me on later, and I’m going to make changes,” Trump vowed. Lawmakers later said that the president gave no indication that he wanted to change anything about their legislation.

Aides to Trump said he later told the House Republicans: “I’m with you 100 percent.”

During the meeting with the lawmakers, Trump took no questions and veered from immigration to trade, North Korea and took a swipe at Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who lost his primary race after Trump opposed him. The president called him “nasty.”

In his speech, the president once again blamed Democrats for supporting “crippling loopholes that cause family separation” and claimed without evidence that Democratic politicians are eager to let members of MS-13 and other violent gangs into the United States so they can eventually vote for them.

The president was greeted by enthusiastic applause throughout his speech to the crowd of mostly small-business executives.

But two other leading business groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable — condemned the practice of separating children from their parents. The Business Roundtable called it “cruel and contrary to American values.” The chamber’s top official said, “This is not who we are, and it must end now.”

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, announced in a tweet on Tuesday that he would withdraw four members of the Maryland National Guard, and their helicopter, from the southern border until “this policy of separating children from their families has been rescinded.”

But the broadest Republican opposition to the administration's policy was in the Senate. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, asked his Senate colleagues to sign a letter to the Justice Department requesting a “pause on family separations” until Congress can pass legislation, a spokesman for the senator said Tuesday. Hatch told reporters on Monday that the separation policy was “not American.”

“As I have said for the last several weeks," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “I oppose the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents. This is counter to our values.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he was working on legislation that would keep families together while increasing the number of federal immigration judges so court hearings could be expedited.

“We’re overwhelming the system,” Johnson said. “We don’t have enough detention units for family units.” He added, “We would probably need to build more, identify more detention facilities, certify them so we can keep the families together.” In the House, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, also said Tuesday he would introduce a measure that “more easily allows for family units to stay together” as part of a legislative package to limit the number of asylum claims.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday morning, Trump continued to falsely blame Democrats for forcing the separations and calling for Congress to enact hard-line changes to immigration laws that he says would make the “zero tolerance” policy at the border unnecessary.

“Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13,” Trump tweeted. “They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”

Later in the morning, Trump administration officials defended their treatment of children who had been separated from their parents at the border, describing a network of shelters in 17 states that provided education, counseling, health care services and playtime until children were reunited with their parents.

Officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services insisted to reporters that the children in their custody were treated humanely. The officials said 2,342 were children who crossed the border illegally between May 5 and June 9 and were taken from a parent to allow the adult to be charged and detained.

Once the parents were taken away to detention, those children were reclassified by the government as “unaccompanied children,” and quickly sent to the Health and Human Services shelters.

But the officials disputed charges of mistreatment of those children, saying that the agencies were subject to strict rules about how children were cared for.

The facilities are “staffed by people who know how to deal with the needs, particularly of younger children,” said Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families. Wagner said that “the children in our care are receiving a full range of services.”