But the family separations have emerged as an exigent issue after Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared a “zero tolerance” policy in April toward adults who attempt to cross the border illegally. The Trump administration has interpreted existing laws and court decisions to require the adults to be incarcerated and the children to be separated from their parents.
That policy has drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups, clergy and lawmakers across the political spectrum — including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
“We don’t want kids to be separated from their parents,” Ryan told reporters Thursday, calling for a legislative fix.
The GOP solution released Thursday would keep families united, according to lawmakers and aides familiar with its implications, albeit in federal custody. It would not permit a return to the previous “catch and release” policy where families were released pending court hearings that were typically scheduled months in the future.
“We want to make sure that the families are not divided, and yet we do have to secure the border,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who helped negotiate the bill. “[Detaining families together] is an option, and if somebody has a better one, we’d like to look at it.”
Democrats lambasted the Trump administration’s policies and said that keeping families together in federal custody was not a humane alternative. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates three “family residential centers” that can together accommodate about 3,330 detainees.
“I’ve visited the family prisons, and they’re outrageous,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. “They’re just the worst.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the Trump policy “barbaric” and dismissed Ryan’s argument that Congress must act — insisting that Sessions could unilaterally reverse the “zero tolerance” policy, which has led to a surge in the number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents.
Sessions defended his border policy Thursday in a speech in Fort Wayne, Ind., arguing that the previous policy amounted to “a declaration of open borders for family units” and that the “short-term separation of families is not unusual or unjustified.”
“American citizens that are jailed do not take their children to jail with them, and noncitizens who cross our borders unlawfully — between our ports of entry — with children are not an exception,” he said. “They are the ones who broke the law. They are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek.”
A 1997 court settlement and subsequent rulings obligates federal authorities to release children detained at the border to relatives or otherwise place them in the “least restrictive” setting possible, which the Trump administration has interpreted as requiring family separations when parents are incarcerated.
In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children stay in jails while their children are sent to shelters operated by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The proposed changes in the House GOP bill would override the 1997 settlement and related litigation to make clear that there is “no presumption that an alien child should not be detained” and that those children must not “be released by the Secretary of Homeland Security other than to a parent or legal guardian.”
A Democratic aide who is not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the proposed Republican language would not force the Trump administration to stop its current practice of separating families, which is largely taking place among families apprehended while crossing the border between official ports of entry. Rather, the aide said, it would apply only to families who officially seek asylum.
The remainder of the discussion draft released Thursday represented the product of intense negotiations that played out for weeks as Republican moderates threatened to force votes on bipartisan immigration bills over the wishes of GOP leaders.
The draft would provide $25 billion for a border wall paired with a new visa that would give young undocumented immigrants a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.
That visa would be open to “dreamers” — young immigrants who arrived illegally in the United States as minors — as well as the children of legal immigrants who hold temporary employment-based visas, a comparatively smaller population. Those visas would be doled out according to a point system based on education, employment, military service and English language proficiency.
The text also cancels the existing Diversity Immigrant Visa Program that distributes 55,000 visa each year by lottery, provides for an increase in immigration enforcement officers and creates new restrictions on who can claim asylum when they cross the U.S. border.
It remains unclear whether enough Republicans will support the bill to pass it. Negotiators on both sides of the GOP’s ideological divide said they were not ready to endorse the draft.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, praised the bill’s “balanced approach” but said it required further study, while Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a leader of the moderate bloc, said he had made “no final decision yet” on the bill.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said GOP leaders will gauge support for the bill Friday, adding that President Trump and White House aides are encouraged by the discussions.
“They like what’s in the bill,” he said. “The president really likes the fact that it fully funds the wall. He hasn’t seen all the details yet, but we stayed very close to the four pillars the president initially laid out and worked closely with the administration in putting this agreement together.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday declined to say whether Trump endorsed the bill and instead pointed to an immigration framework he released in January. “We’ve laid out what we want to see, and if this gets to a permanent solution, then we would support it,” she said.
Addressing the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Ryan stopped short of assuring that the House would pass immigration legislation next week, and in subsequent comments to reporters, Ryan said next week’s votes were scheduled “to give members the ability to express their positions” — not necessarily to pass a bill through the House.
“Our members felt very, very passionate about having votes on policies they care about, and that is what we are doing,” he said. “We won’t guarantee passage. I don’t know the answer to that. Remember, when I took this job three years ago, I said we’ll bring stuff to the floor that may or may not pass. That’s how Congress works sometimes.”