Trump, DHS Officials Punt Family-Separation Immigration Policy to Congress

Trump says Democratic obstruction preventing changes to law

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President Trump and Department of Homeland Security officials on Friday defended their policy of separating children from parents who enter the country illegally and called on Congress to make changes to the law to address the public outrage the issue has ignited.

Speaking to reporters during an impromptu press conference at the White House Friday, President Trump said he did not like enforcing the part of the country's immigration laws and rules that separate children from parents who enter the country illegally.

"No, I hate it," Trump said. "I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. … We can change it tonight."

"The children can be taken care of quickly, beautifully, and immediately. The Democrats forced that law upon our nation," he added.

When a reporter interjected that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, the president said that such a change would require at least 60 votes in the Senate and not enough Democrats would support a GOP immigration package.

Trump also blamed Democrats for "forcing the breakup of families at the border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda," in a tweet that also included demands that any immigration bill Congress considers "MUST HAVE funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain migration, and go to Merit Based Immigration."

The last list of immigration changes, most if not all of which Trump called for during his presidential campaign, are poison pills for nearly all Democrats on Capitol Hill and would have a tough time passing the Senate.

House GOP leaders on Friday paused attempts to craft a compromise immigration bill after statements from Trump suggesting he would refuse to sign it.

House Republicans had planned to bring two immigration bills to the floor next week: a compromise measure backed by House leaders and a more conservative version that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) sponsored.

In the same freewheeling press conference Friday morning, Trump said he was taking a look at both bills but he "most certainly won't sign the more moderate one."

White House spokesman Raj Shah late Friday clarified that the president "fully supports" both the Goodlatte bill and the House leadership compromise bill, which includes a plan to shield so-called Dreamers from deportation and funds to build a border wall. Shah said Trump’s earlier comments saying he opposed the more moderate bill was a reference to a bill written by centrist Republicans and Democrats.

House GOP leaders welcomed the revised White House position, which boosts their hopes of passing immigration in the coming days. The compromise measure would still face high hurdles in the Senate.

The back and forth over the viability of the House immigration measures comes amid an escalating war of words over the Trump administration's policy of separating parents and children who enter the country illegally.

The White House on Friday lambasted MSNBC's Morning Joe anchor Joe Scarborough for appearing to compare immigration officials to Nazis during a rant taking issue with the practice of immigration officials separating children from parents.

"It is appalling that Joe Scarborough would compare sworn federal law enforcement officers—who put their lives on the line every day to keep American people safe—to Nazis," White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. "This is the type of inflammatory and unacceptable rhetoric that puts a target on the backs of our great law enforcement."

"It is also horribly insulting to the memory of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust," she continued. "Not only is Scarborough's rhetoric shameful, but his facts are categorically false."

Immigration rights activists for months have decried the family-separation policy. Three hundred Catholic bishops from across the United States issued a strongly worded statement against several of Trump's immigration policies on Thursday.

The bishops argued that the U.S. government has discretion in the law to "ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma."

"Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together," the bishops said.

DHS officials on Friday held a conference call with reporters aimed at defending their policy as it relates to family separation and clarifying some reporting they argue is exaggerated or just plain false.

The officials say border agents are following immigration laws and policies that prevent the jailing of children with their parents once the parents are charged with illegally entering the country.

"We are following a 100 percent prosecution policy," a DHS official said. "We are left with a choice of whether to enforce the law at the border or allow people who bring children to go free and not face any consequences for their actions."

There are several changes to the law they would like Congress to enact, DHS officials said.

"These are difficult issues, we would like to see [congressional] changes, and we've provided technical assistance for the changes," the official said. "We do not want to have to make decisions like this."

A DHS spokesman confirmed that during a six-week period, from April 19 through May 31, 1,995 minors have been taken into custody and separated from the 1,940 adults accompanying them.

One CNN report, which quoted an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, claimed that federal officials separated an undocumented immigrant from Honduras from her daughter while she was breastfeeding.

DHS officials said they looked into that report and believe it is false.

"We do not separate breast-feeding children from their parents—that is not a policy, not something DHS does," one DHS official told reporters.

The official could not say at what age border agents do separate young children from their parents.

Border agents generally do not separate families from their children if the immigrants are claiming asylum at border entry points. Different laws apply if the immigrants are voluntarily taking themselves to the U.S. officials at the border and claiming asylum.

Border agents would only separate the children from the adults accompanying them in asylum cases if they believe the children are being smuggled or their lives were in some other type of danger, or if they do not believe the children have a parental relationship with the adults accompanying them, the DHS officials said.

Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree   Email Susan | Full Bio | RSS
Susan Crabtree is a senior writer for the Washington Free Beacon. She is a veteran Washington reporter who has covered the White House and Congress over the past two decades. She has written for the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, the Hill newspaper, Roll Call, and Congressional Quarterly.

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