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Congress has no quick fix in the works for separation of undocumented families

Last Updated Jun 18, 2018 3:31 PM EDT

A swift congressional fix to end the detention of thousands of young children by federal authorities is not currently in the works, according to senior aides in both parties, despite days of fresh reports about the plight of families being separated after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

With no resolution in sight and national concern growing for the plight of children separated from parents, "We're all going to be embarrassed by this," said a senior House aide, who added that informal back-channel conversations are ongoing among aides in both parties about possibly finding a resolution or working to convince the White House to reverse its family separation policy.

Currently just one piece of legislation to force the reunion of immigrant families is on the table. The bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, would bar the administration from separating families and allow them to stay together while parents are prosecuted for illegally crossing the border. The measure is cosponsored by all 49 members of the Senate Democratic caucus but has no support from Republicans. On Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, became the latest Democrat to sign on to the bill, but said he would actively seek to work with Republicans to address related issues.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, on Monday became one of the first House Republicans to call for legislation to address family separation.

"It's time for this ugly and inhumane practice to end. Now," he said in a statement. "It's never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process. For some time, I've said that separating young, innocent children from their parents is the wrong approach. The right approach is legislation to address the root issues."

Upton is a more moderate Republican. But conservative Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, also called the separation policy "wicked" in a Facebook post on Monday

"This foolish catch-and-release policy had to be changed," he wrote. "But changing from catch-and-release does not require adopting the wicked family separation policy. The choice before the American people does not have to be 'wicked versus foolish.'"  

Aides in both parties say the latest inflection point in the emotional, years-long debate over immigration policy is set to come on Tuesday afternoon, when Mr. Trump is scheduled to meet with House Republicans to discuss two bills on immigration policy set for a vote later this week. 

A more conservative bill would severely restrict legal immigration and authorize $25 billion for construction of new barriers along the southern border. A bill preferred by moderate Republicans would trigger the border wall funding requested by the White House and set up a path for people protected by DACA to obtain permanent legal status or citizenship.

But it is unclear whether either bill could pass the House, given the sharp divisions on immigration among Republicans and anticipated opposition from most Democrats, who would oppose billions of dollars in spending on border security.

If Mr. Trump is confronted by Republicans upset about the policy and concerned about how the issue could adversely affect their reelection campaigns, "then maybe Trump will budge," said one of the aides, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about party dynamics. Otherwise, multiple aides said they don't believe Democrats or Republicans will budge on the issue – likely setting up a showdown in late September over government funding.

Mr. Trump has threatened to veto annual must-pass spending legislation if it doesn't fully fund his border wall construction requests. Two Republican senators, Richard Shelby (Alabama) and Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), who lead the spending talks on homeland security and border security, are scheduled to meet with Trump on Monday afternoon to discuss their progress.

On Monday, the president continued to blame Democrats for the situation unfolding along the southern border.

"The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility...not on my watch," he said at a White House event. "We want safety and we want security. If the Democrats would sit down and stop obstructing, we could have something quickly."

Also on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that building Mr. Trump's wall along the southern border was essential to ending the practice of separating families

"If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won't face these terrible choices," he said at the National Sheriffs' Association's national conference. "The numbers will end. We will have a system where those who need to apply for asylum can do so and those who want to come to this country will apply legally. The American people are generous people who want our laws enforced. That is what we intend to do, and we ask Congress to be our partners in this effort. It is critically important that they help us again at this critical time."

Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, likewise said at the conference that it was up to Congress to resolve the issue. 

"To address these issues we've asked congress to change the law to allow for the expeditious return of alien children regardless of their country of origin. We are also asking congress to allow us to keep families together while they are being detained. These fixes would go a long way toward discouraging families from sending children on the harrowing journey to the U.S., resulting in fewer children ending up in the hands of gangs such as MS-13 and more adults facing the consequences of these actions.

Congressional Democrats are have spent days pushing back on Mr. Trump's allegations that family separation stems from their policies. They oppose the House Republican proposals that would allow the administration to detain families together as violating the law.

"As everyone who has looked at this agrees, this was done by the president, not Democrats," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, said on Monday. "He can fix it tomorrow if he wants to, and if he doesn't want to, he should own up to the fact that he's doing it."

"Longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedents protect parental rights and family integrity, and make clear that the separation and long-term detention of children is illegal. For the president to allege that there is a law or precedent for severing parents and children is simply a falsehood," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said in a statement on Monday. 

"The blame for every mistreated child, heartbroken mother and father and broken family rests squarely on the President, and only he can end the trauma."

There is also little hope for a fresh debate on immigration policy in the closely-divided Senate -- which voted down four immigration bills earlier this year. Senate Republicans are mostly avoiding votes on hot-button issues of concern, focusing instead on the confirmation of dozens of judicial nominees and other annual must-pass legislation.

In an interview with a Wisconsin radio station on Monday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisconsin, suggested that the Senate could take up and pass the moderate immigration bill if it passes the House. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has said for weeks that he doesn't foresee another immigration debate in the Senate. GOP Senate aides also privately disputed Ryan's comments on Monday morning, citing McConnell's previous comments.

Also on Monday, three groups of lawmakers are touring separate immigrant detention facilities in California and Texas. Pelosi is leading a group of 15 fellow Democrats to visit sites in the San Diego region that are housing migrant children separated from their parents. Another group of Democrats is touring a facility in the El Paso region, while a third group of Democrats, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Filemon Vela, D-Texas, are in the Brownsville area touring a few locations.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Rep. Fred Upton is retiring after this term. He is running for re-election.