Congressional Republicans began to break Thursday with the Trump administration over its zero-tolerance border policy, saying that while they respect the goal of enforcing the law, they are uncomfortable with the consequence of children torn from their parents’ arms.
One Republican senator posted a video of himself assuring a constituent he wanted separations to be rare, while a Republican congressman called the situation a “nightmare” and said the government shouldn’t be “dragging children away from their parents.”
Their comments joined a growing outcry from Democrats, immigrant rights activists and religious leaders. The country’s Catholic bishops at a meeting this week even floated the idea of punishing Catholics who carry out the administration’s zero tolerance policy.
“This is barbaric. This is not what America is, but this is the policy of the Trump administration,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
The zero tolerance policy is a directive to border authorities to refer anyone who tries to jump the border illegally to prosecutors, who have been directed to bring charges in as many cases as possible.
While illegal immigration is a crime, past administrations have focused more on lesser penalties such as deportation, only charging a small percentage of illegal immigrants with misdemeanors or, in the case of repeat offenders, felonies.
The new policy was intended to change the incentives for would-be immigrants, urging them to arrive at ports of entry and make their case through the normal process rather than sneak in.
But the consequence of arrests and prosecutions is that parents who come with their children and who get arrested end up in jail, at least initially — and like with other crimes, their children cannot follow them to jail.
Activists say the separation is bad enough, but say the way some of them have happened — a nursing infant being taken from a mother, as CNN reported, or parents going to the bathroom and coming back to find their children have been separated — have inflamed matters.
The government has yet to provide updated numbers, but activists say as of the last count hundreds of children had been separated and put into foster care or dormitories.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced the zero tolerance policy, defended it Thursday, and aimed his remarks particularly at religious leaders, saying that if they’re trying to protect children’s lives, they would join him in discouraging the new surge of illegal immigrants.
“Hundreds of aliens die every year trying to make it to the border to illegally enter this country. In many cases, children are trafficked, abused or recruited by criminal gangs,” Mr. Sessions said. “No one should subject their child to this treacherous journey — and yet the open borders lobby encourages it every day.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blamed Democrats for splitting up families at the border.
“The separation of illegal alien families is a product of the same legal loopholes Democrats refuse to close,” she said when asked about Mr. Sessions’ comments. “The laws are the same that have been on the books for over a decade and the president is simply enforcing them.”
The White House clashes with Capitol Hill Democrats on nearly every issue, but the flash point on illegal immigration is among the most fiery. Every attempt at compromise went up in flames.
“We would like to fix these loopholes and if Democrats want to get serious about it instead of playing political games,” said Mrs. Sanders. “They are welcome to come here and sit down with the president and actually do something about it.”
Democrats counter that separating children is a choice by the administration, not a requirement of law.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, announced a bill this week that would prevent separation unless agents documented abuse or other dangers to children from their parents. That bill would create an exception to the zero tolerance policy by granting a carve-out for adults who arrive at the border with children.
“We can provide all immigrants who arrive at our border seeking asylum with humane, respectful treatment and return them to their country when necessary,” she said. “Our country is better than this.”
Increasingly, Republicans agree.
“While I believe we have a responsibility to secure our borders, I also believe that how we treat strangers reflects the moral values this country was founded on,” said Rep. Peter Roskam, Illinois Republican. “Dragging children away from their parents ought not be a part of the solution.”
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, posted a video of himself talking to a constituent and saying that while separation happens any time a parent is sent to jail, it should be rare in immigration cases.
“Keep families together as much as we can possible keep families together for as long as we can,” he said.
The issue is even working its way into the immigration debate playing out in the House.
Republicans’ new compromise bill would require children who arrive at the U.S. with a parent or guardian to be released only to them. The bill also would allow families to be detained together. Currently a judge’s ruling limits family detention to 20 days, forcing separation in some cases.
At root the dispute is about the incentives that push people to leave their home countries and that draw them to the U.S.
The Trump administration argues that migrants have figured out ways to use the asylum system or more lenient treatment for children to gain a foothold in the U.S., through catch-and-release policies. They then disappear into the shadows.
Some adults have lied about their age to get treatment as a child, while others have abducted children to try to portray themselves as families. Still others embellish their stories to try to make an asylum claim, analysts say.
But immigrant-rights advocates counter that many of the migrants are fleeing horrific conditions and should be considered refugees deserving of protection.
Mr. Sessions, for his part, told church leaders that a short separation isn’t unusual when parents end up in jail — and that’s true for Americans as well as illegal immigrants.
“They are the ones who broke the law, they are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek,” he said. “The United States on the other hand, goes to extraordinary lengths to protect them while the parents go through a short detention period.”