National News

GOP moves to end Trump's family separation policy, but can't agree how

Posted June 19, 2018 11:54 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2018 12:04 a.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.

In a fiery address to a group of small-business executives, Trump falsely blamed Democrats for the separation crisis and demanded a broad overhaul of the United States’ 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.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said “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 — one drafted by conservatives and the other a compromise measure between conservatives and moderates — that address the family separation issue to different degrees, while also strengthening border security and making other changes to the country’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. Republican leaders are trying to rally support for the compromise bill.

“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.”

McConnell said he planned to reach out to Democrats to support his conference’s 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 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.”

Trump has the power on 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 illegally into the United States. But it would also allow those families to be released while their court proceedings go forward, something Trump opposes.

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

Rejecting a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to increase personnel in immigration courts with the hiring of 375 new judges, Trump suggested that many of the immigration judges could be corrupt, and he said that 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 wall on the southwestern border. 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 evening. 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 said. 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 to North Korea — and he took a swipe at Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who lost his primary race after Trump opposed him. The president called him “nasty.”

Sanford was not present to defend himself — his flight was delayed in Charleston — but in a telephone interview Tuesday night, he said that the attack was “a sign of the times in terms of the way this president operates.”

Noting the gravity of the issues that were the ostensible reason for the gathering, Sanford said with a note of incredulity: “You’re going to use that meeting to shoot at somebody you already killed?”

In his speech to the National Federation of Independent Business, Trump was greeted by enthusiastic applause.

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 that “this is not who we are, and it must end now.”

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

But the broadest Republican opposition to the Trump administration’s policy was in the Senate. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and 12 other senators sent a letter to the Justice Department asking the administration to stop the separation of families until Congress can pass legislation. Hatch told reporters 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, introduced a measure his office said “more easily allows for family units to stay together,” while also limiting 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 from May 5 to June 9 and were taken from a parent to allow the adult to be charged and detained.

Once the parents were taken 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.”