(Bloomberg) -- Democrats escalated their attacks on President Donald Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from parents who illegally cross the Mexican border, as public outrage over the practice balloons into an election-year headache for Republicans.
As controversy rages over the separations, first lady Melania Trump, in a rare foray into policy matters, said Sunday though a spokeswoman that the U.S. must be a country that “governs with heart.” And Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, took to Twitter in an attempt to clarify the policy.
Several Democrats, including some who are seen as 2020 presidential candidates, traveled to McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley area in Texas on Sunday to meet with U.S. border authorities and tour a former Walmart Inc. store that’s been converted into a detention center for nearly 1,500 immigrant boys.
The McAllen delegation was led by Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Separately, Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who’s challenging Republican Senator Ted Cruz in November, planned to visit a a new facility opened near El Paso he described as a “tent city.”
Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration, joined protesters outside a border patrol processing center in McAllen, where temperatures hit 97F (36C) at mid-afternoon.
“It amounts essentially to state-sponsored child abuse that is traumatizing young children by taking them away from their parents, not letting them know when they’re going to see their parents again, keeping them in conditions that we wouldn’t want any of our children in,” said Castro, who’s seen as a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
Trump has refused to accept responsibility for the family separation policy, which administration officials say is intended to deter undocumented immigrants from making the trek to the U.S. border with their children.
The president has repeatedly blamed the policy on Democrats, citing an unspecified law that he says requires children to be taken from parents who cross the border illegally.
White House officials are unable to cite any part of U.S. law that dictates the separations, which were initiated in April after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced “zero tolerance” for unlawful border crossings. Republicans in Congress and the administration have leaned on a 1997 court settlement regarding the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody for legal justification.
The U.S. separated about 1,995 children from their parents and detained them between mid-April and May 31, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said Sunday the number “may well be higher.”
Kids as Leverage
On Friday, Trump hinted in a tweet that the policy is intended as political leverage to force Democratic lawmakers to agree to changes to immigration law containing elements they oppose, including the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda,” Trump said on Twitter. “Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!”
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that she “very forcefully” objected to the implication that Trump sought to use immigrant children as a bargaining chip, even though the president himself suggested it. “I certainly don’t want anybody to use these kids as leverage,” she said.
Other Trump allies are unapologetic. “It’s zero tolerance. I don’t think you have to justify it,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
U.S. religious leaders have castigated the policy. Rev. Franklin Graham, who’s typically a Trump ally, told Christian Broadcasting Network that it’s “disgraceful, it’s terrible, to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit.” Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that “separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”
As the controversy rages, the first lady, who rarely weighs in on policy matters, issued a statement on Sunday though spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham: “Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
Democrats have refused to consent to the border wall or restrictions to legal immigration Trump has demanded, and instead hope to block family separations with standalone legislation.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein has the support of 43 senators, all Democrats, for a bill in her chamber. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, one of the most vulnerable red-state Democrats up for re-election this year, said Sunday on Twitter that she would sign onto the bill this week and focus on the issue in her capacity as the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.
O’Rourke said Sunday he’s working with colleagues to introduce a bill this week in the House.
Realizing the emotional resonance of the issue, House Republican leaders inserted a provision to block the Department of Homeland Security from separating parents and children in an immigration bill expected to be debated this week. The legislation wouldn’t explicitly forbid the incarceration of children alongside their parents.
The fate of that bill is unclear, as the White House has sent mixed messages on whether Trump supports it or an alternative, more conservative immigration measure also expected to receive a vote.
Two Republican senators, Collins and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, said Sunday they’d written to DHS’s Nielsen to demand an explanation of the policy.
“It is critical that Congress fully understands how our nation’s laws are being implemented on the ground, especially when the well-being of young children is at stake,” they wrote.
Nielsen sent five Twitter messages Sunday evening in response to the lawmakers, including one that “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Technically, Nielsen’s correct: families are separated not at the U.S.-Mexico border, but near the border, at a sorting center.
Merkley, who drew national attention to the separation policy two weeks ago when officials blocked him from entering the Walmart-turned-detention-center in Brownsville, will make a return visit to the facility on Sunday. He also plans stops at a border patrol station and a port of entry.
Van Hollen’s participation is notable as he’s in charge of Senate Democrats’ midterm campaign committee.
Many Democrats have shied away from overly politicizing the situation at the border. Former President Barack Obama also grappled with the plight of undocumented child immigrants and detained them when they were unaccompanied by caregivers.
But Merkley, who isn’t up for re-election until 2020 and hasn’t ruled out running for president instead, sent out a fundraising email last week with the subject line “kids in what looked like dog kennels.”
“Under no moral code, under no religious tradition, is this acceptable. And it has to end,” Merkley said Sunday in Texas.
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