Congressional Republicans beat a full-scale retreat Monday from the administration’s zero-tolerance border policy, joining Democrats to demand that President Trump stop jailing parents and find ways to keep families together while trying to stop a new surge of illegal immigration.
High-profile Republicans said they are writing bills that would end family separations, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said he will no longer allow his National Guard troops to assist with border security as a protest against Mr. Trump’s policies.
Former first lady Laura Bush also weighed in, comparing family separations to internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
But Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said both President Obama and President George W. Bush — Mrs. Bush’s husband — both oversaw family separations at the border on their watch, too.
“Their rate was less than ours, but they absolutely did this,” she said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added that it was Mr. Bush who signed a key 2008 law that the administration blames for helping create the conditions that lead to family separation.
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The comments came as the administration tried to hold the line against a hostile press corps, rabid Democrats and increasingly skittish Republicans.
Ms. Nielsen called Democrats “cowardly” for refusing to work with Mr. Trump on solutions.
“Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it,” she said.
She said answers offered by Democrats — releasing the families into the community, where most of them are unlikely to show up when it comes time for their hearings or deportation — amounts to to “open borders.”
Congressional Republicans, though, are abandoning the administration and stepping up with their own plans that would stop separations.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said he’s writing legislation that would double the number of immigration judges, vastly expand the amount of space detention space Homeland Security has to hold families, and push for faster decisions on asylum claims so people get quick answers and can either be released if they are deserving, or deported if they are rejected.
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“While these cases are pending, families should stay together. Children belong with their mothers and fathers,” Mr. Cruz said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said he’ll revive a bill he wrote four years ago, back when the first surge of illegal immigrant children and families overwhelmed the Obama administration and sent Homeland Security scrambling to buy more detention beds for families.
Democrats at the time objected, and that refusal, combined with court rulings and a complex web of laws protecting some illegal immigrant children, has created the mess that’s ensued.
Nearly 70 children are being separated each day now, according to numbers released on Capitol Hill — up from fewer than 50 just weeks ago.
Separations happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes a parent is deemed abusive or a security risk, and other times an adult shows up trying to claim parentage of an unrelated child — sometimes the child was even abducted along the way so someone could pose as a family. There have been hundreds of those cases so far this year, Homeland Security says.
But the big change has been the Trump zero-tolerance policy. Border Patrol agents are now referring almost all illegal immigrants at the border for prosecution, and prosecutors are bringing cases against most of them.
Jumping the border has been a crime for decades, but the Bush and Obama administrations used the criminal penalties sparingly, instead treating illegal immigration through the civil side of the law and trying to deport people.
Over the last five years, though, migrants have figured out how to exploit that system, realizing they can get more lenient treatment if they arrive as families, and figuring that if they claim asylum, even with dubious cases, they can often get released into the U.S. where they can disappear into the shadows.
Unwilling to accept that outcome, the Trump administration said it would follow the laws and bring criminal charges. But that means parents who travel with children are getting jailed, and since jails can’t handle families, the children are taken and put into government-run dorms.
Some 2,342 children were separated between May 5 and June 9, Sen. Dianne Feinstein reported, citing Homeland Security numbers.
It’s likely that many of them have already been reunited with their parents, who served a few days in jail, but exact numbers are elusive.
Two new polls Monday found about two-thirds of Americans opposed to family separations, with Democrats adamantly opposed and Republicans more mixed.
In Washington, Democrats have blasted the Trump administration, saying it is using children as bargaining chips to try to win tougher border security and funding for the president’s wall.
“There’s no law requiring the separation of families. President Trump could end this immoral policy today. If he won’t, Congress must act,” said Ms. Feinstein, who has written a bill that would ban most family separations.
Key Democrats say their preferred solution is to release families from detention altogether, but give them counseling. They said a pilot program under Mr. Obama showed that was effective in getting people to show up for their court dates.
The Trump administration canceled that pilot, the Family Case Management Program, last year. Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on that decision.
Mr. Trump, for his part, said he won’t accept the border being overrun.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be,” he said in brief remarks at the White House, where he again insisted the situation was ‘the Democrats’ fault.”
His aides fanned out across the country to make their case Monday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Ms. Nielsen were in New Orleans addressing the National Sheriffs’ Association, where they said zero tolerance was the only choice for an administration intent on stopping illegal immigration.
Ms. Nielsen then flew back to Washington where she appeared at the White House to answer questions from a hostile press corps in an evening briefing.
“Is this not specifically child abuse?” demanded one CNN reporter.
Ms. Nielsen countered that the abuse came from parents who sent their children on the treacherous journey north to the U.S. border, braving rape, beatings, robbery and other dangers.
The secretary also said she was stunned by lawmakers who were telling her to stop enforcing the laws they passed making illegal immigration a crime.
“It’s a law passed by the United States Congress. Rather than fixing the law, Congress is asking those of his who enforce the law to turn our backs and not enforce the law,” she said. “That’s not an answer.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat eyeing a presidential run in 2020, said she’d heard enough. She called for Ms. Nielsen to resign.