President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans desperately searched Tuesday for an end game to the administration's contentious "zero-tolerance" immigration policy that has drawn fire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
The policy, announced in April, requires criminal charges for adults caught crossing the border without using a legal port of entry. Through the end of May, the policy has separated almost 2,000 children from the adults they were traveling with, the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged.
Trump said Tuesday he wants the legal authority to detain the children along with the adults and "promptly remove families together as a unit."
Footage of children in detention - and audio of children crying as they were separated from the families - has fueled global outrage. Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have been unapologetic, saying illegal entry must be stopped and suggesting that migrants seeking to enter the country illegally have in the past brought children with them to avoid criminal charges.
"Democrats are the problem," Trump tweeted Tuesday. "They don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can't win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!" He tweeted his mantra that people coming into the country illegally must be arrested, adding his familiar refrain: "If you don't have Borders, you don't have a Country!" Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, dismissed Trump's tweets, telling CNN that many of the immigrants are actually fleeing MS-13 and other violence. "This is a falsehood," she said of Trump's claims. "It is internal terrorizing of the American people by scaring them, that they are being under siege by these poor immigrants."
Joe Strauss, a Republican state representative in Texas and speaker of the state House, asked Trump to rescind the "zero-tolerance" policy. In an open letter to the president, Strauss noted that some of the facilities housing the children are in Texas. And that some are filling up. "In order to at least begin addressing this issue, there is no need to wait for Congress to act," Strauss wrote. "That's why I respectfully ask that you move immediately to rescind the policy that General Sessions announced in April and any other policies that have led to an increase in family separations at the border."
The Mexican government condemned what it considers "cruel and inhumane" treatment of children. Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray said at a news conference that Mexico does not promote illegal migration, but it "cannot remain indifferent in the face of something that clearly represents a violation of human rights.' Videgaray complained that "better coordination" was required between the U.S. agencies responsible for caring for the detained children and health officials, that communications between parents and their children were difficult and that disorganization was making it "hard to have rapid reunifications."
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Maryland Republican, joined a group of Democratic governors in backing off plans to provide National Guard troops to help secure the border. Hogan said Tuesday he recalled a helicopter and four crewmembers from New Mexico. "Until this policy of separating children from their families has been rescinded, Maryland will not deploy any National Guard resources to the border," he said. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said they will provide no troops. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, another Democrat who previously had said he might send troops, signed an executive order "that keeps Colorado from using state resources to separate children from their parents or legal guardians."
Democratic attorneys general from 20 states and the District of Columbia demanded that federal officials drop the policy, saying the policy is undermining community trust and hurting law enforcement efforts. And Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, said the "horrific child separation policy" is indefensible. "Secretary Nielsen must be aware that she now owns the implementation of child separation and is fully complicit," Thompson said. "Any notion that Congress can come together and reform our immigration system and fix every issue overnight is laughable with the current GOP Leadership - and the administration knows this.'
A 7-minute audio tape of children crying out at a detention center after being separated from their parents was released Monday by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom. Some of the children are heard crying "Mami" or "Papá." Others plead to know when their aunt or parent will come to pick them up. One child can be heard repeatedly crying for "daddy," over and over. Attendants offer children food. One Border Patrol agent says, "Well, we have an orchestra here. What's missing is a conductor.'
U.S. Sen. John McCain condemned the Trump administration's practice of separating families in a sharp statement Monday, reflecting a break within Republican ranks on the controversial policy. "The administration's current family separation policy is an affront to the decency of the American people, and contrary to principles and values upon which our nation was founded,' McCain, R-Ariz., said in a blistering tweet Monday evening. "The administration has the power to rescind this policy. It should do so now.'
"We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job," Nielsen said Monday. "This administration has a simple message - If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you." Trump said immigration changes could be accomplished "very quickly" if Democrats would negotiate in good faith: "Good for the children, good for the country, good for the world. It could take place quickly." Sessions said the administration must prosecute adults who "flout our laws" to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry. "We cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws," he said.
Contributing: Carolyn McAtee Cerbin and David Agren, USA TODAY; Ronald J. Hansen and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Arizona Republic; Monsy Alvarado, The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record
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