Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics

Trump urges House GOP to fix immigration system, expresses no strong preference on rival bills amid uproar over family separations

June 20, 2018 at 9:48 AM

Watch more!
President Trump met with Republican House members June 19 to discuss immigration legislation, as families are being separated at the border. (Ashleigh Joplin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

President Trump implored anxious House Republicans to fix the nation’s immigration system but did not offer a clear path forward amid the growing uproar over his administration’s decision to separate migrant families at the border.

Huddling with the GOP at the Capitol on Tuesday evening, Trump stopped short of giving a full-throated endorsement to immigration legislation meant to unite the moderate and conservative wings of the House Republican conference.

“He didn’t really tell us what bill to vote for,” said Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.). He said Trump laid out his main principles on immigration and told Republicans he “wanted to take care of the kids” — a reference to the unfolding family separation crisis.  

Trump has repeatedly defended his immigration crackdown, including forcibly separating migrant children from their parents as they arrive at the border. But images of young children housed in metal cages have set off a nationwide outcry that has reached the White House.

Trump described for Republicans how his daughter Ivanka, a senior White House adviser, told him that the images from the border of families being separated were terrible, according to multiple GOP lawmakers who attended the session.

“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,” the first lady’s communications director told CNN on Sunday.
“President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call,” Graham said on CNN on Friday. “I’ll go tell him. If you don’t like families being separated, you can tell DHS stop doing it.”
The former first lady tweeted, “I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
Obama tweeted, “Sometimes truth transcends party” and shared Laura Bush’s op-ed.
Clinton sent out a stream of tweets blasting the White House: “What’s happening to families at the border right now is a humanitarian crisis. Every parent who has ever held a child in their arms, every human being with a sense of compassion and decency, should be outraged.” READ THE STORY
Carter too expressed dismay. “The practice and policy today of removing children from their parents’ care at our border with Mexico is disgraceful and a shame to our country,” she told The Post in a statement Monday.
“These children should not be a negotiating tool,” Clinton tweeted. “And reuniting them with their families would reaffirm America’s belief in & support for all parents who love their children.”
“When someone gets arrested for a crime — let’s say an American citizen gets arrested for a crime, for murder, for burglary, for whatever — if you’re arrested for a crime, you’re separated from your children, you’re put in prison. . . . That is the inevitable consequence,” Cruz told a Texas radio program.
Appearing Sunday on CNN, Meeks noted that former attorney general Alberto Gonzales had spoken about how the administration has “discretion” at the border — concluding that “clearly this government, this president, is using his discretion” to separate families. READ THE STORY
“As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has got a conscience . . . I will tell you that nobody likes this policy,” Conway told “Meet the Press” on NBC. “You saw the president on camera that he wants this to end, but everybody has, Congress has to act.”
“Such separations are inconsistent with our principles as Americans,” Amash tweeted in late May.
“It’s never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process,” Upton said in a statement.
“The secretary of homeland security said that if parents present at a legal port of entry with their children, with the claim of asylum, that their children would not be taken away — yet there are numerous credible media accounts showing that is exactly what is happening,” Collins said on “Face the Nation.” READ THE STORY
Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Schiff likened the president’s demands to extortion. “What the administration is doing is they’re using the grief, the tears, the pain of these kids as mortar to build their wall,” Schiff said. “It’s, I think, deeply unethical.”
“This is inhumane. I’d like to say it’s un-American, but it’s happening right now in America,” O’Rourke said. “We will be judged for what we do or what we fail to do now. This is not just on the Trump administration — this is on all of us.”
Photo Gallery: The administration?s practice of separating children from their parents has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers and former first ladies.

“Can we do anything to stop this?” Trump quoted her saying, according to one lawmaker.

The president’s reaction to his daughter’s remarks, the lawmaker said, was to call it a “tough issue” and push Congress to act: “We need to figure this out,” Trump said. “It’s a sad situation.”

Despite the president’s visit, there was no guarantee that the Republican-led Congress would pass any legislation on immigration, an issue that has exposed deep rifts in the GOP and threatens the party’s control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.

On Wednesday morning, Trump tried again to pin blame on Democrats, writing on Twitter that the country’s immigration laws are “the weakest and worst anywhere in the world, and the Dems will do anything not to change them.”

In another tweet, Trump said he was “working on something” but provided no details.

Watch more!
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is waging a publicity campaign against the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" crackdown on immigrant families. (Jenny Starrs, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

The images from the border have deeply shaken both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, even as Republicans have broadly agreed with the administration’s insistence that Congress hand Trump a legislative fix.

Outside the meeting room, a handful of House Democrats heckled the president as he left the session. The group chanted “Stop separating the children” and “We won’t go away” — although Trump appeared to ignore the protests.

“Quit separating the children, Mr. President,” shouted Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). “Don’t you have kids? Don’t you have kids?”

Trump and top administration officials are unwilling — at the moment, at least — to unilaterally reverse the separation policy.

The issue has roiled Republicans in the Senate, where lawmakers are drafting narrow legislation to address the issue. GOP senators are coalescing around a framework that would allow families to be detained together and would rework the docket of immigration cases so those families are sent to the front of the line of migrants waiting for a court hearing.

“All of the members of the Republican conference support a plan that keeps families together while their immigration status is determined,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after a GOP meeting earlier in the day.

McConnell said he hoped the Senate could pass such a bill by the end of the week, although that timeline appeared optimistic.

In the House, there are two rival bills. One is a compromise measure that would provide $25 billion for Trump’s long-sought border wall, offer a pathway to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants and keep migrant families together.

A competing, hard-line bill by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) would not guarantee “dreamers” a path to permanent legal residency and includes controversial enforcement measures such as the mandatory use of a worker verification program.

Adding to the confusion on Capitol Hill, some House Republicans left the evening meeting with the impression that Trump was endorsing the compromise bill.

“The president gave unwavering support of the compromise bill,” said Rep. Jeff Denham ­(R-Calif.). Several other lawmakers said Trump told Republicans that he was “1,000 percent behind you.”

Yet when Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) asked Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) in front of reporters whether he knew which bill Trump was promoting at the meeting — the compromise or the hard-line measure — Sensenbrenner said he did not.

Inside the room, Trump acknowledged that the politics on the border issue were not good and were one reason Republicans needed to act on legislation this week, according to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).

“There’s a storm brewing off the coast here, and if we don’t handle this in the next four or five days, this could stick all the way through November,” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “It’s not a political issue. It’s what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Republicans are eager to find a legislative end to the turmoil sparked by the new “zero tolerance” policy at the border — although Trump in recent days has hinted that only a broader bill that included the border wall and other enforcement measures would pass muster. 

The Department of Homeland Security has said 2,342 children have been separated from their parents since last month.

Related: [‘Gut-wrenching’ recording captures sounds of crying children separated from parents at the border]

As the numbers have mounted, stories of parents in despair and images of children held in chain-link cages have prompted a stream of Republican lawmakers to break with the president and call for him to unilaterally halt the policy while Congress pursues a solution.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), along with 12 other Senate Republicans, wrote to the Justice Department calling for a pause on separations until Congress can pass a legislative fix.

In the House, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a prominent conservative leader, introduced another stand-alone bill intended to fix the separation policy.

While Republicans scrambled to craft legislation, it was not clear whether Democrats would support the measures. Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) said Tuesday that he and other Democrats would object to any modification of an existing court settlement that limits the detention of migrant children held by federal authorities.

Democrats, Merkley said, “are not going to try to overturn a court decision that was designed to protect kids.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has presented her own plan that would halt family separations. All 49 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus support it. No Republicans have signed on. 

The immigration debate has now become consumed by the consequences of the Trump administration’s border policy. 

Top GOP leaders have spoken out against the separations, including the head of the party’s national House campaign organization. Polls released Monday by CNN and Quinnipiac University showed that Americans oppose the policy by roughly 2 to 1.

More legal challenges to the administration’s policy arose Tuesday, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said his state would sue the Trump administration over the family separation practice. The American Civil Liberties Union is already pursuing a nationwide class-action lawsuit in San Diego.

Meanwhile, a second Republican governor, Larry Hogan of Maryland, announced Tuesday that he would not deploy National Guard resources to the border until the Trump administration stops separating migrant children from their parents as part of its criminal prosecution efforts. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) acted similarly Monday.

Two previous presidents — a Republican and a Democrat — operated under the same laws and court settlements, and both generally refrained from separating families at the border. Some Trump administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, have openly cast the separation policy as a deterrent to future illegal immigration.

The two bills set for a House vote this week would both address the status of dreamers, as well as provide funding for the border wall that Trump has long demanded. 

Both bills would require the Department of Homeland Security to keep families together, even when a parent is charged with the misdemeanor crime of illegally entering the United States, and would remove a 20-day cap on custody for accompanied children. The bills would also allow DHS to use the $7 billion appropriated in the measures for border technology to house families.

The two bills differ in several ways, however. One takes a more aggressive approach to immigration enforcement — for instance, requiring employers to screen their workers for legal work status using the federal E-Verify database — and does not guarantee dreamers a path to permanent legal residency. The other, which has been written to garner more Republican votes, omits some of the hard-line measures and offers dreamers a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

Sean Sullivan, Josh Dawsey, Paul Kane, Mark Berman and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

Related: Read more at PowerPost


Mike DeBonis covers Congress, with a focus on the House, for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

Philip Rucker is the White House Bureau Chief for The Washington Post. He previously has covered Congress, the Obama White House, and the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. Rucker also is a Political Analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. He joined The Post in 2005 as a local news reporter.

Seung Min Kim is a White House reporter for The Washington Post, covering the Trump administration through the lens of Capitol Hill. Before joining The Washington Post in 2018, she spent more than eight years at Politico, primarily covering the Senate and immigration policy.

John Wagner is a national reporter who leads The Post's new breaking political news team. He previously covered the Trump White House. During the 2016 presidential election, he focused on the Democratic campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. He also chronicled Maryland government for more than a decade.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing
Keep reading for $10 $1
Show me more offers