Sessions and officials from the Department of Homeland Security have defended the practice of separately detaining children and parents trying to cross the border, which has led to about 2,000 children being separated from their parents in the past 45 days.
That has earned the Trump administration significant pushback from Democratic lawmakers, several of whom headed to the Texas border and detention centers inland on Sunday to draw attention to the issue and stump for bills they have filed in Congress — which have failed to earn any Republican support.
Republican lawmakers also have registered frustration with the recent detentions, with some, such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), questioning whether the number of children separated from parents “may well be higher” than reported.
“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,” adding, “The administration needs to put an end to that, right off.”
She rejected the administration’s argument that it was preventing child trafficking, saying “that is not what’s going on.”
“From the experience of previous administrations, it does not act as a deterrent to use children in this fashion,” Collins said, stressing that the practice is “traumatizing” for the children, who are “innocent victims.”
“It is inconsistent with our American values to separate these children from their parents unless there’s evidence of abuse or another very good reason,” she said.
Collins and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) sent a letter to the administration seeking more details about the program. But though she is critical of the Trump administration, Collins was also critical of a Democratic effort led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) to end the family-separation tactics, calling it “too broad.”
Instead, she said, the Senate should “try again” with a bipartisan immigration bill that fell short of the 60-vote procedural threshold earlier this year — a vote that Collins suggested might have been successful had the Department of Homeland Security not “issued an inflammatory news release” the night before “that torpedoed the bill.”
“We should not give up,” Collins said. “We need to fix our immigration laws, and using children is not the answer.”
Democrats in the House are expected to file a measure similar to Feinstein’s this week, according to Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), speaking Sunday on CNN’s “State of America.” Neither effort is expected to garner Republican support.
But the House will be taking votes on two immigration bills whose fate is uncertain — especially after Trump suggested Friday that he would not sign either one.
Trump’s comments touched off confusion as White House officials swiftly attempted to walk back the remarks, saying the president did support the GOP-led efforts, despite suggesting otherwise.
One of the Republican immigration bills, a hard-line effort led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (Va.), is not expected to garner enough support to pass the chamber.
The other, described as a compromise between the moderate and conservative factions of the GOP, fully funds the president’s desired wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, ends the diversity visa lottery and family-based immigration, and incorporates a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers.”
The measure, which was drafted with White House input, would also stop the practice of family separation, but not the detentions, and applies only to those families that arrive at the border seeking asylum.
Trump is expected to speak to House Republicans directly about immigration and other matters in a meeting on Tuesday ahead of the planned Thursday votes. The president has been anything but conciliatory on the matter.
The president has accused Democrats of promulgating “laws” that have caused family separation at the border — though there are no laws mandating that children be taken away from any adult arriving at the border.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), appearing Sunday on CNN, 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.
Trump has also blamed Democrats for the migrants’ continued plight, citing their refusal to accept a bill that would fully fund the border wall and end family reunification visas.
Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) 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 an effort to extort a bill to their liking in the Congress. It’s, I think, deeply unethical.”
O’Rourke said Sunday that Congress would not pass an immigration bill “at the cost of ending family migration, which is the history of this country.”
O’Rourke is one of several Democratic lawmakers who headed to the border and to detention centers this weekend to mark Father’s Day with a public demonstration against family separation and child detention.
“I hope to produce the outrage and the public pressure to force those in power to do the right thing,” he said.
“This is inhumane. I’d like to say it’s un-American, but it’s happening right now in America,” O’Rourke added. “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.”