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Orrin Hatch on separation of families: "The way it's being handled right now isn't acceptable"

Last Updated Jun 19, 2018 11:15 AM EDT

Reporting by Ed O'Keefe, Nancy Cordes and Alan He 

Amid an uproar over an application of "zero-tolerance" immigration policies that is separating thousands of migrant children from their families at the border, the Trump administration maintains that it's up to Congress to take action to stop it from continuing. "Congress could fix this tomorrow," Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen said Monday. 

President Trump will be going to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with House Republicans, who are considering broader immigration measures. Several GOP members criticized and questioned the efficacy of the policy.

"I firmly detest the heartless and inhumane practice of separating children from their parents at the border. This extreme measure must end. It is an ineffective deterrent against illegal immigration, and children should not have to face traumatic ordeals given the actions of their parents," Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania said in a statement. Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Pennsylvania says that if the policy isn't changed, "I will support other means to stop unnecessary separation of children from their parents."

Rep. Fred Upton, of Michigan, called for a vote this week that would keep families together, give Dreamers stability and improve border security. "It's time for this ugly and inhumane practice to stop," he said in a statement.

Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions' zero-tolerance policy, which demands that every illegal crossing be prosecuted, parents are moved into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, and many of the children are put into Health and Human Services facilities. Previous administration relied more on civil deportation proceedings, which don't require the separation of families.

Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May.

On the Senate side, in a sign of the growing opposition among Republicans to the separation of families, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is circulating a letter among colleagues today that calls on the Justice Department to stop separating families until Congress passes "a legislation solution to this issue," a senior aide to the senator said. 

The senator is seeking to have members of both parties co-sign his letter, the spokesman said.

Hatch, the longest-serving GOP senator, is a strong supporter of the president who usually serves as a public defender of Mr. Trump's policy positions.

But on Monday, Hatch said "The way it's being handled right now isn't acceptable. It's not American. I think we've got to do whatever it takes to try and keep families together."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced a bill late Monday that would mandate keeping migrant children with their parents when they're detained at the border, authorize new temporary shelters to house them, and double the number of federal immigration judges in order to more quickly process requests for asylum.

"All of us who are seeing images of children being pulled away from moms and dads in tears were horrified," Cruz told reporters Monday. "This has to stop."

Cruz's bill also calls for faster processing and review of asylum cases, so that within 14 days, those meeting the legal threshold would be granted asylum, and those who don't would be sent back to their home countries. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, likes Cruz's plan, and he's now trying to get a group of senators in both parties together Tuesday to agree on a plan that would end the separation of illegal immigrant families. Graham said he has spoken with Susan Collins, R-Maine, about working together to find a few Democrats to work with them.

"There are at least four or five Democrats who would do it," he said, given the growing urgency and political costs of inaction. But he didn't say which Democrats he might target.

A spokeswoman for Collins didn't immediately reply to requests for comment.

It is not clear whether the president would sign legislation that just focuses on reuniting the families. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether the president would sign legislation that allows for families to be held together, but does not include any of the president's other priorities, like funding for a border wall. She replied that the president wants to see a more comprehensive package that addresses a range of immigration problems. 

But after the White House signaled that it would oppose a narrow fix, the White House said Tuesday that it is reviewing Cruz's bill to keep migrant families together.

Asked if the White House supports the Cruz measure, Mercedes Schlapp, the director of strategic communications, told reporters "we're looking into the legislative text on the Cruz bill."

This is a developing story and will be updated.