House Republican leadership on Wednesday silently accepted the Trump administration’s lie that the President is powerless to end his own policy of separating immigrant families at the border, letting Trump off the hook for a policy that has split up dozens of families per day with little apparent pre-planning for how to reunite those families as they are processed through criminal and civil courts.
“The administration says it wants Congress to act, and we are,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said at a press conference Wednesday, after claiming House Republicans were opposed to “breaking families apart.”
“I do not believe that the government should be separating families and children at the border,” Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) said.
McMorris Rodgers said in a statement Monday that “the administration should stop the practice of separating families on their own.” But the statement hedged that “President Trump has made it clear that Congress must make a formal policy change,” and on Wednesday, she made only the latter point.
“My priority right now is to be continuing to work with our members to find that solution,” she said.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said that a 2008 law, combined with the so-called Flores settlement, had “forced this policy.” The 2008 law requires non-Canadian or non-Mexican immigrant minors to be transferred to HHS custody while in immigration proceedings. The Flores Settlement placed a time limit on the DHS detention of children and families. Neither requires systematic family separation.
“This is law, and we want to change the law,” Scalise said.
That’s not true. No law says families must be separated. The Trump administration’s decision to prosecute all border crossers, including parents, resulted in the recent tidal wave of separations.
“We do not support the separation of children and families being broken apart,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said, while refusing to call on Trump to immediately end the policy. The real question, he said, was whether “people want to play politics, or do we want to put people before politics?”
Even if House Republicans’ congressional sprawling answer to family separations is passed Thursday — unlikely, given vocal Democratic opposition to it, and long odds in the Senate — Speaker Ryan had no answers for a reporter who asked what would happen to separated families in the months before it took full affect.
“Your legislation appropriates $7 billion for new family detention centers. But that’s going to take time to build. So what happens until those are built?” she asked. “Has the President guaranteed that if this bill passes, that he would put a pause on [family separations] until you can get your legislation implemented?”
“I would refer you to Kirstjen Nielsen, the [DHS] secretary, she’s talked to us about interim measures,” Ryan said, without explaining further.
And he rejected outright narrow legislation that would stop family separations and do nothing more — confirming that House Republicans would tie the fate of potentially hundreds or thousands more separated families to broader and more controversial legislation on DACA, the long-term DHS detention of families and more.
“We are trying to pass this legislation right now,” Ryan said, asserting later that it was “ridiculous” to accuse congressional Republicans of using family separations as leverage.
Republicans’ unwillingness to pressure Trump to end the family separation policy (only 13 Republican senators have called on the administration to do so while legislation gets hashed out) leaves more and more immigrant families vulnerable to separation, something doctors warn has intense and decades-long mental and physical health consequences for children.
Thousands of immigrant families have been separated at the border since Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in April, and while Congress negotiates a fix (while Trump refuses to simply undo the policy) the government separated 65 children per day on average from their parents between May 5 and June 9.