WASHINGTON — An enlarged photograph of immigrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley was placed next to a group of five U.S. senators inside the nation’s capitol here this week, condemning President Donald Trump’s recently implemented “zero tolerance” policy and the immigrant families left separated in its wake.
While the Trump Administration ramped up the practice in May, it had been ongoing for months. This prompted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to introduce a bill to end the separation of families, called the “Keep Families Together Act.”
She was joined by four colleagues this week, next to the photograph from the Valley, to tell stories about the new policy, which has resulted in about 2,000 children being split from their families, according to a Friday Associated Press report.
Feinstein cited the immigrant man who committed suicide in a Rio Grande City jail last month after being taken from his family. She also mentioned “public defenders in McAllen” being told lies about mothers and children being torn from their families, only to never return.
Alongside Feinstein were Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Merkley visited a Homeland Security facility in the Valley earlier this month, and plans to return on Sunday.
Many Senate Democrats support this bill, Feinstein said, but hasn’t earned any Republican support. To pass, the bill would need support from more than 10 Republicans.
The zero tolerance policy, which has led to breaking up families, was formally announced by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions this spring. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second most powerful Republican in the Senate, likened Trump talking about the border wall to “nails on the chalkboard” this week when speaking in the Capitol to a group from South Texas organized by the RGV Partnership, which promotes business across the Valley.
While Cornyn didn’t declare support for the Feinstein bill, he told the group that the lack of movement to pass immigration reform is his top frustration.
“I don’t know of any one subject that’s more likely to break your heart than immigration,” he said. “Every time we feel like we’re making some good headway, we never quite get the ball over the finish line.”
He later called the family separations a symptom of the immigration problem.
“The real cause is, let’s get people in front of an immigration judge promptly,” Cornyn said in an interview. “Then there’s no need for separation.”
Merkley agreed that there needs to be far more timely hearings for asylum seekers in front of immigration judges.
Cornyn’s Texas GOP colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz, however, was more concrete about defending Trump’s family separations policy.
“As a U.S. citizen, if you commit a crime and get arrested, you’re separated from your kids,” Cruz said in an interview. “And if you’re the only caregiver, your children have to find alternative caregivers — whether family members, friends or foster care. What all the media attention on separation of families is really saying, is don’t incarcerate those who come here illegally.”
Merkley, who’s bringing fellow Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, and a group of House members to the Valley on Sunday, said in an interview that Republican senators have told him they’re privately lobbying the White House to end family separations.
One Republican, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., disclosed his lobbying effort.
“I am asking the White House to keep families together as much as we can,” Lankford tweeted this week.
Merkley is also working on a bill related to the facilities where children are housed. Earlier this month, he was denied entry during a trip to the Southwest Keys Casa Padre detention center, which is contracted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’re circulating it for cosponsors right now,” Merkley said about his bill in an interview. “It essentially says that a member (of Congress), with a day’s notice, can visit a facility where children are detained. And the reason it’s important not to have a two-week thing is it’s not helpful to have a show put on by an organization, two weeks of planning. We need to be able to see what’s going on on a day to day basis.”
The bill includes that the news media can join the members, without cameras, on those visits.
As it stands now, when working through the Office of Congressional Affairs, there needs to be a two-week notice to visit facilities such as the detention and processing centers in the Valley.
Cornyn emphasized his immigration frustration to the group from the Valley multiple times. He said how in addition to Trump offering a pathway to citizenship for recipients of Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the president wanted to provide money for border security.
“I know he talks about the wall, and it’s sort of like fingernails on the chalkboard when he does that,” Cornyn said.
“But we still have to keep trying. Unfortunately in Washington, D.C., there are some people who would rather have an issue than they would solve the problem because you can keep that issue alive. You can run on it, you can raise money on it, and we have a cottage industry of groups around Washington, D.C. that raise money by scaring people about immigration and inflaming them, and it makes it very, very challenging. But we’re not gonna give up — it remains a very high priority for me.”