Democrats expanded their campaign Sunday to spotlight the Trump administration’s forced separation of migrant children from their families at the U.S. border, trying to compel a change of policy and gain political advantage five months before midterm elections.
Against a notable silence on the part of many Republicans who usually defend President Trump, Democratic lawmakers fanned out across the country, visiting a detention center outside New York City and heading to Texas to inspect facilities where children have been detained.
In McAllen, Tex., where several Democratic lawmakers toured a facility, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of Texas estimated that he saw about 100 children younger than 6.
“It was orderly, but it was far from what I would call humane,” he said.
Seven Democratic members of Congress spent Sunday morning at the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey, waiting nearly 90 minutes to view the facilities and visit five detained immigrants.
“This is unfair and unconstitutional,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.).
Trump has falsely blamed the separations on a law he said was written by Democrats. But the separations instead largely stem from a “zero-tolerance” policy announced with fanfare last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The White House also has interpreted a 1997 legal agreement and a 2008 bipartisan human trafficking bill as requiring the separation of families — a posture not taken by the George W. Bush or Obama administrations.
Trump remained silent on the issue for most of the day Sunday before tweeting that Democrats should work with Republicans on an immigration solution before the election “because you are going to lose!” In a radio address on Saturday, he brought up the topic of “unaccompanied alien minors” in a broadside against Democrats who he said had created “glaring loopholes” that let in young members of the MS-13 international gang.
“Democrats in Congress have opposed every measure that would close these immigration loopholes and bring this slaughter to an end,” he said after recounting a litany of crimes he said were committed by immigrants here illegally. He said he was defending “every American child.”
White House officials and allies on Sunday dug in and defended the policy, insisting as Trump has that the administration was following existing immigration law.
“I don’t think you have to justify it,” former senior White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon told ABC’s “This Week.” “We have a crisis on the southern border.”
“They are criminals when they come across illegally,” Bannon said.
Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway answered critics’ complaints by telling members of Congress to change immigration measures on the books.
“If they don’t like that law, they should change it,” Conway said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The divisions between the White House and its critics on both sides of the aisle opened a signal week when it comes to the nation’s immigration policies. President Trump was due to speak Tuesday to Republican members of Congress on the issue, which has confounded both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for a generation.
Republicans are considering two measures, both of which give the president much of what he has demanded, including billions for construction of a border wall, sharp curbs on legal immigration and other security mechanisms. But neither a conservative proposal nor a more moderate one that would allow families to be detained together was guaranteed enough support among party members who have long been split on how to deal with immigrants in the country or seeking entry.
Democrats, actively denouncing the zero-tolerance policy, have remained united against the GOP measures but are pushing a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to immediately block family separations. No Republican has publicly supported that option.
After equivocating Friday about which of the two Republican immigration measures he would support — and shaking up GOP members seeking signs from the White House — Trump later said he would back either one.
White House officials have said the president is betting that by continuing to separate families, he will gain political leverage in negotiations with Congress over a new immigration bill and cause a drop in the number of immigrants seeking entry.
A sign of the difficult balance over which all sides were tussling came Sunday from a statement released by a spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump.
“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,” it said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
Former first lady Laura Bush also stepped into the fray in a Washington Post opinion article.
“I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel.” Bush said. “It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
She said the warehousing of children in a former Walmart and a Texas tent city was “eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
Two Republican senators publicly signaled their worry Sunday by asking for more information about children who reportedly have been taken from parents seeking political asylum at U.S. ports of entry. Seeking asylum is not a crime.
“It is critical that Congress fully understands how our nation’s laws are being implemented on the ground, especially when the well-being of young children is at stake,” Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) wrote in a letter to the secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Collins said breaking up families was “traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims.”
“From the experience of previous administrations, it does not act as a deterrent to use children in this fashion,” Collins said. “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.”
At the same time, Collins was critical of Democratic efforts to end the policy, including the Feinstein measure, which Collins called “too broad.”
U.S. officials have said that the number of families who could be broken up might double and that the number of children who’ve already been taken from their parents — 2,000 over a six-week period from April to May — may be higher than what the administration has reported.
Already, the policy has sparked a public relations crisis as the administration has been confronted with photos of young, bewildered children being separated from their parents at the border — a difficult scenario under any circumstances but one that landed with a particular poignancy on Father’s Day weekend.
Notable Republican allies, such as evangelist Franklin Graham, who has defended Trump at every turn of his presidency, have broken with the administration in recent days. Graham called the family separations “disgraceful.”
Other religious leaders and a host of child welfare organizations have fiercely criticized it, contending it will harm the children throughout their lifetimes.
Democratic leaders worked to maximize negative publicity over the weekend, hoping to prompt a national push against the policy that would also play to their benefit in November.
Appearing on “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.”
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) was one of several Democratic lawmakers who headed to the border or other detention centers this weekend to mark Father’s Day with a public demonstration. He said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that House Democrats would introduce legislation this week to ban the practice.
“I hope to produce the outrage and the public pressure to force those in power to do the right thing,” said O’Rourke, who is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November. “This is inhumane. I’d like to say it’s un-American, but it’s happening right now in America. 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.”
O’Rourke also offered some sympathy to Border Patrol agents, whom “we’re asking . . . to solve international problems.”
At the detention facility outside New York, Democrats challenged Republicans to join them in bringing separations to an end. The lawmakers arrived at 9 a.m. and protested loudly when security guards didn’t let them in.
The seven were eventually admitted and spent more than an hour looking at the facilities and talking to people who had children they were unable to see.
“None of the people we met here had come for economic reasons,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who took notes on the detainees’ stories after they were prevented from bringing in cellphones. “They were fleeing violence.”
When one reporter in the center asked why no Republicans had joined the protest, Pallone suggested they were afraid to confront the Trump administration.
“They won’t challenge Sessions,” he said. “They may agree with us, but they won’t say it.”
Rep. Albio Sires, whose district includes the center, said he had come to the United States as an 11-year-old.
“That’s not the country I recognize, in there,” said Sires, who was born in Cuba. “They don’t even have a procedure in place when they take the kids.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Democrats would introduce legislation to block funds for any family separation tactics, a companion to Feinstein’s Senate legislation.
“Trump said he’s very much opposed to this policy,” Nadler said. “So he’d have a chance to prove that.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) attacked Trump for blaming the separation policy on Democrats, and he challenged House and Senate Republicans to allow a vote to change it.
“Stop lying to the American people,” he said. “This is your policy. You are the ones that we will force to shut this down.”
As the members of Congress spoke, around 60 protesters joined them, some holding signs with pictures of immigrants who had been detained.
Sean Sullivan in McAllen, Tex., contributed to this report.