Senate Talks Falter on Bill Barring Family Separations at Border

(Bloomberg) -- Bipartisan Senate talks on a bill to keep the government from separating undocumented immigrant families that enter the U.S. from Mexico have stalled, lawmakers said Wednesday, amid disagreements over the treatment of those held in custody.

Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of four senators in the negotiations, said “the whole thing kind of stopped” and that the group hasn’t met face-to-face in about a month. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican leader, said talks appear to be “dead” because Durbin and fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California are making demands that Republicans consider too broad.

“I think it’s dead, unfortunately,” Cornyn told reporters. “Senator Feinstein and Senator Durbin want to do comprehensive immigration reform, which isn’t going to happen.”

The snag threatens lawmakers’ efforts to respond after President Donald Trump’s administration established and then reversed a policy to split undocumented families at the border. Senators disagree over the protection immigrants should get from long detentions and standards for facilities holding them.

Right now, the matter is in court. The administration is struggling to comply with U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw’s order to reunite about 2,550 children over age 5 with their parents by July 26. Sabraw, in San Diego, has expressed frustration with the pace of the process and said last week the administration might be "acting in defiance" of his order.

On Monday, responding to a filing by the American Civil Liberties Union, Sabraw ordered the government not to deport families for at least the next week.

In Congress, the Senate has been more likely to move first on legislation to keep the families together. The House has no immediate plans to act before its members leave for a five-week August break. Instead, the House on Wednesday passed a symbolic GOP resolution showing support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- a response to a call by some Democrats to “abolish ICE.”

Durbin said the bipartisan group -- which also includes Republicans Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas -- haven’t been able to agree on how to override a 1997 court settlement that barred minors from being held for more than 20 days and set quality standards for facilities and treatment of children in custody.

Durbin said Tillis and Cruz are too geared toward eliminating the settlement, while Democrats want to make sure a new plan doesn’t end protections for the children.

“That’s a non-starter,” Durbin said. “If we don’t have protection for these infants, toddlers and children that have been agreed on for 20 years by presidents of both political parties, it’s a very weak starting point.”

Immigration Judges

Tillis said the senators have been able to generally agree on other aspects of a deal, including increasing the number of federal immigration law attorneys and judges.

Republicans have said the 1997 settlement’s requirement that children not be detained for more than 20 days led to the separations in the first place, because their parents can be held for longer. Democrats say the real cause was the Trump administration’s decision to keep more undocumented immigrants in custody.

Tillis said despite the snag, informal discussions are continuing. Cruz said he hopes for a narrowly tailored bill, and that it will be up to Democrats to decide whether to participate.

“I have no doubt the Senate will have the opportunity to vote on this at some point,” Cruz said.

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