President Trump huddled with House Republicans at the Capitol Tuesday to rally the GOP in an election-year immigration fight that has exposed major rifts in the party.
“The system has been broken for many years,” Trump said as he arrived at the Capitol. “The immigration system, it’s been a really bad, bad system, probably the worst anywhere in the world. We’re going to try and see if we can fix it.”
Earlier Tuesday, a defiant Trump had defended the administration policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border and demanded Congress produce comprehensive immigration legislation to address what he called a “massive crisis.”
Trump said he plans to make changes to whatever immigration measure emerges from the House, although his aides have said he would sign both bills under consideration or, perhaps, a narrower fix that immediately addresses the family separations.
Trump called on Congress to authorize the government “to detain and promptly remove families together as a unit,” which he said was “the only solution to the border crisis.” And he went on to mock current security measures at the borders as insufficient and castigated the immigration court system as corrupt, appearing to reject a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that would keep migrant families intact in part by increasing the number of immigration court personnel.
Senate Republicans just rebuked Trump on family separations
“We have to have a real border, not judges,” Trump said during a midday speech to the National Federation of Independent Business. “Thousands and thousands of judges they want to hire. Who are these people? . . .
Seriously, what country does it? They said, ‘Sir, we’d like to hire about 5,000 or 6,000 more judges.’ Five thousand or 6,000. Now, can you imagine the graft that must take place?”
In remarks before a gathering of business owners in Washington, Trump argued that undocumented immigrants could “game the system” by taking counsel from immigration lawyers and reading statements prepared for them. And on Twitter, Trump continued to repeat his false claim Tuesday that Democrats were responsible for the separation of parents from children consistent with the “zero-tolerance” policy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced with fanfare this year.
Trump’s visit with House Republicans was ostensibly to lobby them on broad immigration legislation aimed at ending the separations while also providing billions of dollars for his long-sought border wall and other security priorities. But Trump earlier also indicated that he would want to make changes to the bill — which White House officials had previously said he supports and would sign.
The latest in confusing remarks from Trump concerned Republican lawmakers, who want clarity and political cover from the president as they confront an issue that has long stymied the party.
“I’m hoping it was just an off-the-cuff comment,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, an large bloc of conservative lawmakers, said of Trump’s remarks that he was considering revising the carefully negotiated bill.
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In the Senate, Republicans are drafting narrow legislation to address the issue of family separations. GOP senators are coalescing around a framework that would allow families to be detained together and rework the docket of immigration cases so those families are sent to the front of the line of migrants waiting for a court hearing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he hoped the Senate could pass such a bill by the end of the week, although that timeline appeared optimistic.
Trump and top administration officials are unwilling — at the moment, at least — to unilaterally reverse its separation policy. The president seemed especially animated in his speech before business owners and agitated about the way his administration’s family separation policy is being portrayed in the media.
Republicans are eager to find a legislative end to the turmoil sparked by the new “zero tolerance” policy at the border — although Trump in recent days has hinted that only a broader bill that included the border wall and other enforcement measures would pass muster.
The Department of Homeland Security has said 2,342 children have been separated from their parents since last month.
As the numbers have mounted, stories of parents in despair and images of children held in chain-link cages have prompted a stream of Republican lawmakers to break with the president and call for him to unilaterally halt the policy while Congress pursues a solution.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), along with 11 other Senate Republicans, wrote to the Justice Department calling for a pause on separations until Congress can pass a legislative fix .
In the House, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a prominent conservative leader introduced another stand-alone bill intended as an alternative if the more-sweeping bills set for House votes this week fail.
While Republicans scrambled to craft legislation, it was not clear whether Democrats would support the measure. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Tuesday that he and other Democrats would object to any modification of an existing court settlement that limits the detention of migrant children held by federal authorities.
Democrats, Merkley said, “are not going to try to overturn a court decision that was designed to protect kids.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has presented her own plan that would halt family separations. All 49 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus support it. No Republicans have signed on.
Trump’s upcoming remarks to the House Republican Conference come days before lawmakers will vote on a pair of GOP bills meant to address the uncertain status of “dreamers” — young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — after Trump moved last year to cancel the Obama administration program that protected them from deportation.
But the immigration debate has now become consumed by the consequences of the Trump administration’s border policy.
Top GOP leaders have spoken out against the separations, including the head of the party’s national House campaign organization. Polls released Monday by CNN and Quinnipiac University showed Americans oppose the policy by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.
Even more legal challenges to the administration’s policy arose Tuesday, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said his state would sue the Trump administration over the family separation practice. The American Civil Liberties Union is already pursuing a nationwide class action lawsuit in San Diego.
Meanwhile, a second Republican governor — Larry Hogan of Maryland — announced Tuesday that he would not deploy National Guard resources to the border until the Trump administration stops separating migrant children from their parents as part of their criminal prosecution efforts. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) had acted similarly on Monday.
Two previous presidents — a Republican and a Democrat — operated under the same laws and court settlements and both generally refrained from separating families at the border. Some Trump administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, have openly cast the separation policy as a deterrent to future illegal immigration.
The question is whether any immigration legislation can possibly pass the House this week — let alone the Senate, where Democrats have more leverage.
The two bills set for a House vote this week would both address the status of dreamers, as well as provide funding for the border wall that Trump has long demanded.
Both bills are expected to include language meant to address the family separations — in short, by allowing the Trump administration to keep families together in detention.
According to a GOP aide familiar with the new language, which is set to be released Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security would be required to keep families together, even when a parent is charged with the misdemeanor crime of illegally entering the U.S., and would also remove an existing 20-day cap on custody for accompanied children. The bill, the aide said, would also allow DHS to use the $7 billion appropriated in the bill for border technology to house families.
The two bills differ in several other ways, however. One takes a more aggressive approach to immigration enforcement — for instance, requiring employers to screen their workers for legal work status using the federal “E-Verify” database — and does not guarantee dreamers a path to permanent legal residency. The other, which has been written to garner more Republican votes, omits some of the hard-line measures and offers dreamers a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.
Neither bill is supported by Democrats, and it is unclear whether they have the support of enough Republicans to pass the House.
Two conservative lawmakers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their deliberations said numerous House members are wary that the GOP compromise bill omits the E-Verify requirement and that it could give the parents of dreamers an indirect path to U.S. citizenship.
Further raising doubts among conservative Republicans, the lawmakers said, is that the bill is all but dead on arrival in the Senate.