Although President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to halt the practice of separating undocumented children from their parents if they are apprehended entering the country illegally, a debate continued unabated in Congress over how to address the issue through legislation.
“It's about keeping families together while at the same time being sure that we have a very powerful, very strong border, and border security will be equal if not greater than previously,” Trump said as he signed the order in the Oval Office. "So we're going to have strong, very strong borders, but we're going to keep the families together. I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated."
The president and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had maintained that the executive branch lacked the authority to stop the separation of families in detention, but the new plan appeared to do exactly that. Administration officials told the Washington Post the order the president signed may ultimately violate a 1997 court settlement limiting the length of child detentions.
Under the order, the Department of Homeland Security would be directed to detain families together while awaiting prosecution and the Department of Defense would be ordered to provide additional housing because DHS detention centers are already at capacity.
“I give the president credit,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. “Today, he ended that policy through an executive order. He listened to Congress, he listened to folks in his administration and made the right decision.”
President Trump has consistently blamed Democrats for the separations, arguing current laws require the government to take children away from parents being prosecuted for illegal border crossings. Democrats counter that the crisis has only occurred because Trump’s Justice Department implemented a “zero tolerance” policy of detaining and prosecuting everyone caught crossing the border.
“It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation. They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something - it never ends!” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. Democrats promptly responded that this is false.
“The president can make stuff up all day but its not going to change the facts on the ground,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “I think people are onto this.”
Van Hollen was among Democratic lawmakers who traveled to the border to visit a facility where families were being pulled apart, and he said that trip “confirmed my worst fears.”
“We need to end this inhumane policy,” he said on Wednesday morning. “It was put in place six weeks ago by President Trump and he can stop it today by making a phone call over to the Department of Homeland Security telling them to stop it now.”
The president’s executive action comes amid growing uncertainty on Capitol Hill regarding the ability of Congress to promptly address the crisis in a bipartisan fashion despite widespread public outrage. Republicans planned votes Thursday on broader immigration reform bills that have no Democratic support and may even lack the GOP support needed to pass.
“We do not want children taken away from their parents,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a news conference Wednesday morning. “We can enforce our immigration laws without tearing families apart.”
Trump said Wednesday he still expects Congress to act, and the order he signed was officially titled “Executive Order Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation.”
As images of children packed into pens filled TV screens and the Associated Press reported on babies and toddlers crying in “tender age” shelters, members of both parties insisted that they want to find a way to stop the separation of families at the border. Vast difference persist on how to accomplish that, though.
“Many of us are extraordinarily uncomfortable, even heartbroken and a little angry over some of these videos and pictures we’ve seen,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.
While consensus on legislation that could clear both chambers of Congress still seems out of reach, Stewart left a House GOP meeting with Trump Tuesday night hopeful that a solution will be found.
“I’m very optimistic that the House is going to pass a meaningful immigration bill for the first time in 30 or 40 years,” he said. “I think we’ll do that this week.”
House Republicans had already planned to consider two immigration reform bills this week: a conservative bill and a more moderate one that provides a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who had been protected by the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Both bills also include border wall funding and significant reforms to the legal immigration system that the president has long sought.
Though Trump was critical of the moderate compromise bill last week, he indicated to GOP lawmakers Tuesday that he would support either piece of legislation. Some conservatives still deride any bill that offers permanent legal status for Dreamers as “amnesty.”
“The president was clear, he supports this compromise bill. It fits the four pillars he laid out in his State of the Union that he’s talked about, and it fixes the family separation issue, which he said he wanted to have fixed,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., accusing Democrats of “playing politics” over the situation.
Despite his optimism, Stewart recognized any immigration reform that makes it through the House faces a steep uphill climb in the Senate.
“The Senate is very, very slow,” he said. “Its very frustrating for us. There’s 427 bills the House has passed that are sitting in the Senate right now.”
Although Trump’s executive order may alleviate the immediate urgency, the House votes on the two bills are still expected to proceed Thursday.
“We have to stop people illegally coming across our border and stop those things that incentivize people to come across the border, so it becomes more important to pass a strong immigration bill,” said LaHood, who supports the more conservative measure introduced by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Democrats accused Republicans and the White House of using migrant children as leverage to extract concessions on other immigration issues.
“It’s important to recognize the president can deal with the child separation issue by himself right now and should not try to hold those kids hostage to try to pass a broader immigration bill in the House,” Van Hollen said.
Stewart seemed to acknowledge Republicans aim to tie a fix for this problem to other less-popular reforms.
“If there’s a silver lining on this dark cloud regarding the children,” he said, “it’s that I believe its going to push people to support some of these fixes with immigration that they might not have been willing to do otherwise.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., claimed Democrats are the ones exploiting the issue for political gain, observing that they failed to address immigration when they had full control of the White House and Congress under President Barack Obama.
“You really have to legitimately ask, do Democrats want to fix this issue or are they just happy to exploit?” he said. “That’s what they’re doing, they’re exploiting the problem right now. We actually need them to step up to the plate.”
Every Senate Democrat has thrown their support behind a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that specifically addresses family separations, but Republicans have complained such a measure could encourage people to bring children with them across the border to avoid detention.
“We cannot allow a child to be a get-out-of-jail free card and a get-into-the U.S.-free ticket,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., at the White House Wednesday.
Many Democrats have already staked out opposition to any GOP legislation that links helping these children to funding Trump’s much-promised border wall.
“The House bill is a very broad immigration reform,” Van Hollen said. “It has lots of problems. It reduces the amount of legal immigration in the country. That has nothing to do with what’s happening at the border with family separation.”
Though he placed the onus for action squarely on Trump, Van Hollen said he would readily vote for Feinstein’s bill if Republicans allowed it to reach the Senate floor.
Ryan told reporters Wednesday he is not currently considering narrow proposals to address the family separation issue because he is focused on passing a comprehensive reform bill.
“If other things happen, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
On Tuesday, more than 190 House Democrats backed a companion bill to Feinstein’s legislation that would prohibit separation of families, limit prosecution of asylum-seekers, and establish a public policy preference for family reunification.
While President Trump claimed he wanted to see families kept together, other administration officials have stated they intended for separations to serve as a deterrent to parents considering entering the country illegally.
“We expect that the new policy will result in a deterrence effect, we certainly hope that parents stop bringing their kids on this dangerous journey and entering the country illegally,” said Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Given that his change in policy at the border precipitated the situation, Democrats have attempted to brand Trump with singular responsibility for rectifying it. They maintained one phone call from the president could halt the current practice of separating every family apprehended along the border until Congress can work out a permanent solution, a view that Trump’s executive order Wednesday seemed to reinforce.
“There are so many obstacles to legislation and when the president can do it with his own pen, it makes no sense,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday. “Legislation is not the way to go here when it’s so easy for the president to sign it.”
According to LaHood, the time has passed for pointing fingers, and the time has come for action.
“Regardless of the fault, the president took action today through executive action and working with the Homeland Security Department,” he said. “Now it’s our obligation to do something.”