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Trump flip on family separation underscores 'chaos' in immigration reform

The issue of immigration surfaces sharp political divides. But dismay over the handling of children at the US-Mexican border has disrupted the usual party lines.

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President Trump listens during a meeting with Republican members of Congress on immigration in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, June 20.

Evan Vucci/AP

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The optics – and the reality – just got to be too much: Babies and toddlers ripped from their parents’ arms, and put in “tender age” shelters. Children sitting in cages, wailing for Mami and Papi. Undocumented immigrant parents in anguish over losing custody of their children, as they await possible deportation – unsure of whether they will ever see their kids again.

Until Wednesday, President Trump defiantly insisted that only Congress could solve the crisis of family separations at the US-Mexico border, triggered by an administration policy implemented in May. But amid a revolt by allies, including Republicans in Congress and the Rev. Franklin Graham, the president took action, and signed an executive order Wednesday that temporarily allows migrant families that enter the US illegally to be held in detention together.

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“We’re looking to keep families together,” Mr. Trump told members of Congress.

Recommended:Family separation: Evangelicals add their voices to opposition

Critics liken Trump to a fireman who sets a fire, puts it out, then claims credit for saving the day. But nobody in Washington comes out of this crisis looking good. With November midterms looming, and control of both congressional houses on the line, Democrats in particular sought to take advantage of the heartbreaking images of distraught children – sending out email petitions and, in some cases, fundraising.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer played political hardball over the border crisis, refusing to support a proposal by Republican senators aimed at solving the problem. “When the president can do it with his own pen, it makes no sense,” Senator Schumer told reporters.

But the real challenge for Trump came from within his own party. Republican members of Congress – leaders, key committee chairs, rank and file – came out against the family separations. A June 14-17 Quinnipiac poll found 55 percent of Republican voters, in fact, supporting the practice of family separation, the only demographic group showing majority support, but that figure is far lower than Trump’s overall support among Republicans. Americans overall oppose the separation of migrant parents and children, the poll showed.

In short, it was a losing issue for Republicans, especially those trying to save their seats – and their party’s majorities on Capitol Hill – in November.

“The danger for Republicans,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, was that the administration was creating an environment where people felt the only way they could stop this was to vote for Democrats – “even in races where there are Republican candidates they like and admire.”

Mr. Ayres adds that the Trump administration was holding “a losing hand,” and Trump seemed incapable of admitting error. “You don’t look weak if you reverse a mistake, you look smart,” Ayres says.

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But for the president, backing down clearly was a difficult decision: 

“If you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people,” he said Wednesday. “And if you’re strong, you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong.”

Reversal could trigger lawsuits

All along, Trump’s posture has been that his administration had no choice but to separate illegally migrating parents from the children they had brought with them. He said he was just carrying out the law. But it was a policy change – a call to refer all illegal Southwest border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution – that triggered the new practice of family separation.

Now, with Trump’s order keeping families together in federal immigration custody, the president could face a new legal challenge: possible violation of the so-called Flores settlement of 1997, which limits the duration of child detentions to 20 days.

But for now, Trump can say that he has halted further family separations. 

In a call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Gene Hamilton, counselor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said the Justice Department would ask the judge to modify the terms of the Flores consent decree to facilitate the administration's approach toward detention of families. In addition, Mr. Hamilton called on Congress to pass legislation that will help close what the administration views as loopholes in US immigration law as a result of Flores.

The family separation issue consumed lawmakers on the Hill, overshadowing a Senate trying to debate spending legislation and a House moving toward a vote on two Republican bills to address the fate of young immigrants, or “Dreamers.”

Chaos and protest

“It’s a complete mess,” observed Theresa Cardinal Brown, an immigration expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in advance of the president’s meeting with House Republicans Tuesday. “I haven’t seen this much chaos since the travel ban.”

Also highly unusual: The president was heckled by Democratic lawmakers as he left Tuesday’s meeting. They held signs and one of them shouted: “Mr. President, Don’t you have kids?”

Members of both parties said they were deeply disturbed by the media accounts and images of the separated children at the border. But they came at it from two different perspectives – not surprising, given the highly charged nature of the issue and midterm elections just around the corner.

As he did with Dreamers, Trump initially threw the family separation issue to Congress to fix. Republicans – even while admitting the president had the authority to fix it himself – set quickly to work to come up with solutions. They appeared not to want to directly cross the president. 

The scenes of the children were “terrible,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas on Tuesday. He promised a fix within a matter of days – a position backed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans introduced a bill to keep families together in safe facilities and to hire 225 more immigration judges to speed up processing.

Democrats were far more graphic in their denunciation of the separations, for instance, making comparisons with America’s Japanese internment program in World War II. They put the onus on Trump to fix a problem he created with his “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally. 

“I’m not at all surprised,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California Wednesday, as reports of the new executive order surfaced. “I mean everybody has spoken out against it, including the pope, including the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and I think everything that we believe in is made a mockery of by separating children from their parents.”

The issue has caused alarm among his constituents, says Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware. He’s been struck by the range of people up and down his state who have texted, called, emailed, and sent private Facebook messages, including Republican activists. People who had his private cellphone number – and had promised not to disturb him unless it was an emergency – considered this a “break-the-glass” moment and contacted him to do something, he says.

Will Congress take action?

It’s not clear whether Congress will act in the wake of the executive order. Behind the scenes, senators from both parties are talking with each other. During votes on Wednesday, Senator Feinstein could be seen in long conversations with key Senate Republicans who have been working on family-related legislation. She has her own bill that is supported by all of the Democrats. 

On the larger issue of border security and “Dreamers,” it’s hard to see this going anywhere without a bipartisan effort – yet that is not the path taken by House Republicans. On Thursday, they are expected to vote on two measures, a more hardline version that does not see a path to citizenship for Dreamers, and a more moderate, compromise measure among House Republicans that does. Neither looks to have enough support among Republicans to pass on a party-line vote, and House Democrats oppose both bills. 

“At the end of the day, it’s going to take both parties and the president coming together” to make progress on immigration, says Ms. Brown. It is the continued use of immigration as an election issue that has brought the country to this point of “tragedies,” says Brown.

“Multiple Congresses, with various configurations of Republicans and Democrats, have been punting on immigration for a very long time. It’s resulting in all of these tragedies that we’re seeing. Tragedies of Dreamers. Tragedies of [families] at the border.”

Staff writer Warren Richey contributed to this report.