Congress leaves town without voting on fix to stop family separations at border

WASHINGTON – Congress members have left town for a week-long Fourth of July recess without taking action to stop the continuing crisis of family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.

House and Senate leaders had expressed hope that Congress could act quickly this week to pass a narrow bill that would allow migrant children to remain with their parents at detention centers beyond the current 20-day limit. At least five bills have been offered so far, but lawmakers have been unable to unite around any one of them. 

Both chambers adjourned Thursday without a solution. They will return on July 9.

Members of both parties have condemned separating children from their parents as more than 2,000 babies, children and adolescents have been taken from their mothers and fathers as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration initiative announced in April. The policy has mostly affected families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, who are fleeing widespread gang violence and some of the highest murder rates in the world.

Conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, recently summed up the reaction of most lawmakers when he said that “all Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers.”

“This must stop. Now,” Cruz said.

But stopping it has so far proved difficult.

Amid growing public outcry, Trump reversed his policy last week, ordering parents and children to stay together in detention centers after the parents are charged with crossing the border illegally.

However, a 2015 court ruling said that a 1997 legal agreement known as the Flores Settlement prohibits immigration officials from keeping children in detention centers with adults for more than 20 days, even if they are with their parents. After those 20 days, children must be sent to separate youth detention facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

That means that every day Congress fails to act, more families face separation.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. has offered a bill – the Equal Protection of Unaccompanied Minors Act – that would keep parents and children together in detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security.

The only exception: if parents or legal guardians are charged with a felony, they could not remain with their children. However, most of the adults crossing the border are charged with the misdemeanor crime of entering the U.S. illegally.

The measure was part of a much broader immigration reform bill that was defeated in the House on Wednesday, but Meadows and other supporters want lawmakers to vote on his legislation as a standalone bill.

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A migrant child looks out the window of a bus as protestersImmigrant Patricia Lozano, from Honduras, waits withImmigrant Elyse Hernandez, from Honduras, right, waits
Immigrant Elyse Hernandez, from Honduras, right, waits with her daughter, Genesis, inside the bus station Saturday, June 23, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. The family slept on a bridge for three days before entering the United States. 
David J. Phillip, APRuben Prado, an immigrant from Guatemala seeking asylumImmigrants from Honduras seeking asylum wait on theManuela Candelaria Solano holds her young son at theChildren in masks are escorted out of the Cayuga CenterThe Children's Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York, asChildren in masks are escorted out of the Cayuga CenterA group of 30 people made up of Mexican and CentralNancy Gonzalez, 23, of Guatemala, cries at the possibility
Nancy Gonzalez, 23, of Guatemala, cries at the possibility of being separated from her daughter, Angie, 2, on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Francisco Alachea Martin, right, a volunteer nurse, took Gonzalez, her sister, and their daughters to receive medical attention. Gonzalez arrived in Nogales on Tuesday to seek asylum. 
Sean Logan, The Arizona Republic, via USA TODAY NETWORKImmigrants seeking asylum status wait to be calledA volunteer gives directions on how to catch a bus.Guadalupe Arcos Avila, 34, shows a picture of her familyCell phones charge at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelterMagali Nieto Romero, 33, sits with her children onA woman writes names with recent arrivals on a waitingA woman with two small children enters the El Chaparral

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  • Immigrant Elyse Hernandez, from Honduras, right, waits3 of 18
  • Ruben Prado, an immigrant from Guatemala seeking asylum4 of 18
  • Immigrants from Honduras seeking asylum wait on the5 of 18
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  • A group of 30 people made up of Mexican and Central10 of 18
  • Nancy Gonzalez, 23, of Guatemala, cries at the possibility11 of 18
  • Immigrants seeking asylum status wait to be called12 of 18
  • A volunteer gives directions on how to catch a bus.13 of 18
  • Guadalupe Arcos Avila, 34, shows a picture of her family14 of 18
  • Cell phones charge at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter15 of 18
  • Magali Nieto Romero, 33, sits with her children on16 of 18
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  • A woman with two small children enters the El Chaparral18 of 18

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“We need to better enforce our immigration laws, but we can do so while keeping parents and children together,” Meadows said. “I believe my bill will help do that.”

But Democrats say that keeping children in detention indefinitely with their parents is not an acceptable solution.

“Indefinite detention of children – they want to overturn the Flores case by making it longer,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday. “That is not going in a positive direction.”

More: What you need to know before Saturday’s immigration protests

More: As thousands prepare to rally, here’s where things stand on immigration

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has introduced a Democratic alternative – the Keep Families Together Act – that prohibits immigration officials from separating children from their parents, except in extraordinary circumstances.

It also limits the criminal prosecution of migrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S. The bill delays prosecution of adults for illegal entry or re-entry into the country, but does not specify where parents and children should stay while waiting to make their cases in court.

“The Keep Families Together Act does what this administration won’t do, by including a variety of measures to prevent children from being separated from their parents,” Nadler said. “I urge my Republican colleagues to stand on the right side of history by supporting this legislation.”

Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the bill, charging that it is essentially a “catch and release” program that will let people go inside the U.S. with no guarantee that they will show up for their court hearings.

The best hope for a bipartisan compromise may be in the Senate, where the unlikely duo of Cruz and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is working on a bill that would keep migrant families together without detaining them indefinitely or letting them go.

Among the possible options that Cruz and Feinstein have reportedly discussed: using ankle bracelets instead of detention to keep parents from fleeing while waiting with their children for court hearings. 

“This is a manufactured crises, plain and simple,” Feinstein tweeted this week. “Previous presidents have found ways to enforce our immigration laws without separating children from their parents. If the president won’t protect children and keep families together, then Congress must.” 

 

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