Sen James Lankford: Families staying together should be "default"

Republican Senator James Lankford, of Oklahoma, is adding his voice to the chorus of lawmakers calling for an end to the practice of separating migrant families at the border. He told "CBS This Morning" Wednesday that the "default" for the Trump administration and any immigration legislation should be that families stay together, as lawmakers continue to work on ending the controversial policy. 

"I have spoken with Secretary of DHS, Secretary [Kirstjen] Nielsen, she and I have had a good conversation about this as they're trying to be able to work it together, the default position I believe should be that families stay together," he told "CBS This Morning," adding, "There should be exceptions to that as there always have been, but the default is family stays together."  

But Lankford also suggested that it's already within the power of the Trump administration to end the practice. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who rolled out the administration's "zero tolerance" policy in April, can keep families together now with the "stroke of a pen," he said. However, the administration has insisted it's up to Congress to fix the problem.

Lawmakers must also come up with a solution for dealing with families seeking asylum at the border, as opposed to those who are illegally entering. "The issue is do we allow individuals to be able to choose voluntary return? Keep the families together while they're making the decision -- if they choose voluntary return, then they can make a return back before charges are actually filed," said Lankford. 

He added, "Our request is just delay when you're filing charges to give the families time to be able to make a decision. If they're not seeking asylum -- they were trying to be able to cross the border illegally -- then they're given that opportunity to return as a family."

Lankford said that asylum seekers in the meantime should seek valid port of entry into the United States, which is creating a "bigger challenge" for border officials.

"That's the spot [that] if they know they're going to request asylum they can go, they're not violating a law," Lankford explained. "Secretary Nielsen has been very clear that if you're seeking asylum, go to a port of entry, don't try to illegally cross the border in the open area, and then once you get into the country, then declare asylum because it makes it much more complicated for people." 

He added, "The challenge is they have to get people to a spot to be able to determine if they quality for asylum and then make the decision from there and it slows down the process dramatically."

The senator suggested that as nationwide debate grows over the policy, "as much transparency as possible helps everyone to be able get answers to questions and be able to look at it," and he added, "We are a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The people want to be able to get basic answers, and that's a very reasonable request." 

  • Emily Tillett

    Emily Tillett is a politics reporter and video editor for CBS News Digital