WASHINGTONÂ â€“Â 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,Â but lawmakers have been unable to unite around any one of them.Â
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 billÂ â€“Â the Equal Protection of Unaccompanied Minors ActÂ â€“Â 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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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.Â
David J. Phillip, AP
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.Â
Sean Logan, The Arizona Republic, via USA TODAY NETWORK
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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 childrenÂ â€“Â 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.”
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Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has introduced a Democratic alternativeÂ â€“Â the Keep Families Together ActÂ â€“Â 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 wonâ€™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 wouldÂ 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.Â
“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 wonâ€™t protect children and keep families together, then Congress must.”Â