(Bloomberg) -- Republicans in Congress are trying to find a way out of a political bind imposed by President Donald Trump, who is showing no sign of abandoning his policy of separating children and parents who illegally cross the U.S. border with Mexico.
Images and accounts of the thousands of children being held in temporary centers after the arrest of their parents have sparked a firestorm of dissent that’s expanded to include Republican governors and party luminaries such as former First Lady Laura Bush. Even a spokesman for the French government said the separations were “shocking” and showed different "model of civilization” between the U.S. and Europe.
Several Republican lawmakers said Monday they would introduce or were working on legislation to stop family separations in immigration enforcement.
“I think everyone understands the urgency of the situation,” said Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is drafting a bill that would require judges to rule on migrant children’s cases within 72 hours and require families to stay intact in the meantime.
Stopping the separate detentions of children without legislation dealing with other aspects of immigration would be a rare show of defiance by Republicans, who’ve been wary of crossing Trump given his tight hold over core Republican voters. But the growing public backlash over the administration’s policy has raised alarms with less than five months to go before elections that will decide control of Congress.
Yet GOP leaders haven’t indicated whether they’ll get behind stand-alone legislation to block the family separations, and Trump has indicated he wants a broader package of changes to immigration law, including money for a border wall and restrictions on legal immigration and refugee admissions.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility," Trump said Monday at the White House.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen separately said the administration wouldn’t apologize for splitting families at the border and said it was a consequence of the government’s prosecution of immigrants apprehended illegally entering the U.S.
“Parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals,” Nielsen said at a briefing. “If an American were to commit a crime anywhere in the United States, they would go to jail and they would be separated from their family. This is not a controversial idea."
Detention Center Visits
Democrats have seized on the issue, with several prominent lawmakers leading delegations to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to meet with U.S. border authorities and tour detention centers for the children separated from parents. All 49 Senate Democrats, which includes 10 facing re-election campaigns in states that Trump won in 2016, said they would support a proposal by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California that generally keeps detained families together except in cases of suspected abuse and trafficking.
Meanwhile, there was a rising chorus of protest from key GOP figures.
Conservative Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who rarely criticizes the president, said that while he supports strict enforcement of immigration laws, “I am against using parental separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who is running for re-election in solidly Republican Texas, said he also is introducing legislation to keep immigrant families together.
“All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers. This must stop,” Cruz said in a statement.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is running this year to defeat Democratic incumbent Senator Bill Nelson, said in a statement, “Let me be clear -- I do not favor separating families,” and called for action to address that and secure the border.
And Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said he’s canceling the deployment of his state’s National Guard troops to the border in protest. First Lady Melania Trump, herself an immigrant, weighed in with a statement that the U.S. must be a country that “governs with heart.” Laura Bush late Sunday condemned the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy in a Washington Post op-ed, calling it “cruel” and “immoral.”
Objections even came from Europe, where French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux sharply criticized the policy during a television interview.
“We don’t have the same model of civilization,” Griveaux said Tuesday on France 2 television. “Obviously we don’t share certain values. These pictures are obviously shocking.”
In the House, leaders were reworking provisions in two separate, broader immigration bills that had been expected to get votes this week to ensure that minors apprehended at the border can remain with a parent or legal guardian while in U.S. custody. However, it remained unclear whether either piece of legislation has enough support to pass.
Both bills would also provide funds for Trump’s border wall, change the process for those seeking asylum and eliminate some options for legal immigration. Each takes a different approach for dealing with the legal status of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children and who are known as Dreamers.
Representative Ben Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, said House Republicans missed their chance to pass bipartisan immigration legislation. "Will they bring up anything that has a chance of passing the House and the Senate? I don’t think that they will," he said.
The Trump administration in April began its policy of pursuing criminal charges against anyone who attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. That has led to a dramatic jump in the number of parents being separated from their children and reports of families being split up even if they were entering the U.S. to seek asylum. Feinstein says that DHS numbers show that 2,342 children were taken from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9.
American voters oppose, by 66-27 percent, the family separation policy, according to a June 14-17 Quinnipiac University poll. The survey also found a partisan divide on the matter, with Republicans supporting the policy 55-35 percent -- the only party, gender, race, age or education breakdown to back it.
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