The White House has rejected the idea of legislation that would end its policy of separating migrant children from their parents unless it also includes broad immigration reform and funding for a wall along the border with Mexico.
“The President doesn’t just want to see a Band-Aid put on this,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday. “This isn’t something we can tinker with. We have to actually fix the entire system.”
Images of children housed in tent camps and lying on mats on the floor of a shuttered Walmart along the Texas border have become a flashpoint in the country’s debate over immigration reform, drawing widespread condemnation as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on two competing Republican immigration bills this week.
Lawmakers in both parties rushed on Monday to devise a targeted legislative fix.
GOP senators said they were considering legislation that would keep migrant families together, provide additional judges to shorten waits for detained families, and provide facilities the migrants to stay in. California Senator Dianne Feinstein said she had the backing of the Democratic caucus for a bill would that prohibit the separation of migrant children from their parents except in cases of child abuse or trafficking.
But the White House signaled it would oppose any narrow fix. Ms. Sanders said President Donald Trump’s priorities, like funding a border wall and tightening immigration laws, must also be fulfilled as part of any legislation.
“We want to fix the whole thing,” she said. “We don’t want to tinker with just part of it.”
The policy, part of a zero-tolerance approach to illegal border crossings that Attorney-General Jeff Sessions announced earlier this year, separated nearly 2,000 migrant children from their parents between mid-April and the end of May, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.
Speaking at a meeting of the National Space Council in Washington, Mr. Trump blamed “horrible laws” for the policy, but said Democrats are obstructing Republican efforts to reform immigration.
He pointed to the political crisis engulfing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government over migration as a cautionary tale for U.S. lawmakers. “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” he said. “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places. We can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch.”
The Trump administration’s hard-line stand on immigration has drawn sharp criticism from across party lines.
All living former first ladies, both Republican and Democrat, have opposed the policy. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Laura Bush called family separation “immoral. And it breaks my heart.” Melania Trump issued a statement through a spokesperson that she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN that Mr. Trump “could stop this policy with a phone call.”
The UN High Commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, called on the U.S. government to immediately end the practice. “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” he said.
Mr. Trump is set to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss two recent proposals for immigration reform legislation. The White House has said the President would sign either bill that makes it to his desk.
Both pieces of legislation aim to meet Mr. Trump’s “four pillars” for immigration reform: ending a diversity visa lottery, building a border wall, limiting family-based migration and ensuring a pathway to citizenship for young people known as “Dreamers” who were brought to the United States illegally as children and were granted work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The fate of the Dreamers has deeply divided the Republican Party. A conservative bill written by House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte proposes deep cuts to legal immigration, would authorize spending of US$124-billion for border security over five years, and grant Dreamers renewable residency permits rather than green cards, limiting their prospects for citizenship.
A second bill put together late last week by Republican leaders, moderate Republicans and White House officials would also clamp down on legal immigration, but would allow many Dreamers to qualify for green cards eventually, and proposes US$25-billion for construction of a border wall with Mexico. It also seeks to prohibit children from being separated from their parents while they are in federal custody.
The bills will face a tough hurdle in Congress. Democrats are expected to vote against them, meaning a successful bill would require support from all but 18 of the 235 House Republicans. Either bill would also face a divided Senate that has already rejected several immigration proposals this year.
Senior White House officials have scrambled to respond to the growing outcry.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a White House press briefing that the federal government does not separate families that claim asylum at official ports of entry. She defended the administration’s policy toward asylum seekers detained at illegal border crossings, and called the conditions at holding centres for children “humane.”
“Parents who entered illegally are by definition criminals,” she said. “Here is the bottom line: We are enforcing the laws as they exist on the books. As long as illegal entry remains a criminal offence, DHS will not look the other way.”
Ms. Nielsen said the family breakups will continue until Congress changes laws to make it possible to keep families together while they are detained and to deport them more easily. “Apprehension without detention and removal is not border security,” she said, calling Congress “cowardly” for criticizing the administration’s policies.
Federal policies have been on the books for years allowing illegal migrants to face criminal prosecution, although previous administrations have made exceptions for families and children who claimed asylum.
Video released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows the inside of a detention facility where children, reportedly separated from their parents, are being held. The video was shot by the government agency during a media tour of the facility Sunday.
The Globe and Mail, June 18, 2018