WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will be on Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with Republicans on possible immigration bills.
His administration has come under fire for its “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting any adult who crosses the border illegally and separating them from their children. Under the policy, all unlawful crossings are referred for prosecution — a process that moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under the previous administration, such families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the practice.
“No more free passes. No more get out of jail free cards. No more lawlessness.”
Over the last five weeks, more than 2,300 children have reportedly been taken from their parents.
“Hopefully people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry and not break across the border unlawfully,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Two immigration bills under consideration in the House could address the separations, but the outlook for passage is dim. Conservatives say the compromise legislation that GOP leaders helped negotiate with moderates is inadequate.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a member of the Freedom Caucus, said he’s skeptical that even a full-throated endorsement from Trump will be enough to get the compromise bill through the House.
The compromise bill shifts away from the nation’s longtime preference for family immigration to a new system that prioritizes entry based on merits and skills. It beefs up border security, clamps down on illegal entries and reinforces other immigration laws.
To address the rise of families being separated at the border, the measure proposes keeping children in detention with their parents, undoing 2-decade-old rules that limit the time minors can be held in custody.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., another Freedom Caucus member, said he expects the GOP compromise bill to be defeated if it reaches the floor. “There’s not enough votes because it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.
Faced with the prospect of gridlock in the House, senators appear willing to take matters into their own hands.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican leader, said Senate Republicans are working on language to address the family separations that could receive a floor vote, potentially as part of a spending bill package.
“I don’t think the answer to family separation is to not enforce the law. I think the answer to family separation is: Don’t separate families while you’re enforcing the law,” Cornyn told reporters. “It’s all within our power, and people have to overcome their desire to preserve an issue to campaign on.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he wants to do away with a legal settlement that requires the government to release children from custody and to their parents, adult relatives or other caretakers, in order of preference.
GOP senators including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine also said they’ve been discussing family separation legislation.
Graham told reporters the measure would keep migrant families together, provide additional judges so detained families would face shorter waiting periods, and supply facilities for the families to stay. He said he did not know how much the proposal would cost.
While the White House wants more comprehensive immigration reform that includes a border wall, Democrats say the administration needs to compromise.
“As long as President Trump insists on being a hardliner on immigration it will be quite difficult for there to be consensus bipartisan legislation,” said Senator Chris Coons.