Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate

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Hopes of reaching a deal to help migrant parents and children separated along the U.S.-Mexico border appear to be fading in the Senate.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) and GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) were tasked with trying to draft a compromise on legislation dealing with immigrant families detained at the southern border in the wake of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policies.

But the negotiations have devolved this week into public finger pointing, with senators on both sides passing the blame for why talks have faltered.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, on Wednesday declared prospects of a deal “dead.”

“It sounds to me like Senator Feinstein has basically broken off discussions. She said she wants to do comprehensive immigration reform, which is basically a kiss of death to this targeted effort for families,” Cornyn told The Hill.

A spokesperson for Feinstein, who argued that talks are ongoing, said the Democratic senator is still seeking a deal on a narrow bill.

{mosads}The Senate negotiations are Congress’s best chance of crafting narrow legislation that could address when and how immigrant families should be detained and still win over enough support from lawmakers. Immigration has emerged as a political lightning rod in recent years, but senators argued that if members as politically divergent as Cruz and Feinstein could strike a deal, that would likely guarantee it could pass.

But the negotiations appear to have derailed over two issues that would be crucial to any agreement: What to do about the Flores settlement, which places restrictions on how long children can be detained, and alternatives to detaining families together potentially indefinitely.

Durbin, asked Tuesday about the status of negotiations, immediately began to shake his head and said the four hadn’t met as a group in weeks. He added on Wednesday that Democrats are always interested in comprehensive legislation but were open to “other conversations and other issues.”

“We’ve run into an initial obstacle and that is the Republicans start every conversation by saying first we eliminate Flores, and that’s a non-starter. If we don’t have protection for these infants, toddlers and children … it’s a very weak starting point,” Durbin said.

As part of the executive order signed last month by Trump, the administration is asking the courts to alter the decades-old agreement, which has been determined to bar the detention of most immigrant children at 20 days.

Tillis said on Wednesday that legislation didn’t have to overturn the Flores settlement in order to get his support but needed to add “flexibility” so the administration could keep immigrant minors with their families “during the detention period.”

“We’re probably — we’ve made a lot of progress on some of what I consider to be the process stuff, the number of judges, the number of attorneys and even how you would define adequate facilities,” he said, asked if the talks had hit a roadblock.

But Durbin countered that family detention units that allowed for children to be detained for a longer period of time were also a “non-starter” and that Republicans had shot down their pitches about alternatives to detention, including ankle monitoring.

“We said to them ‘you can do that without creating internment camps.’ And they said, ‘You don’t get it. It’s not about turning up for the hearing. We need to stop future flow.’ Oh really, well what does that mean? [Republicans said] we’ve got to make it so painful for them that the message has to go out don’t even try it. And I’m thinking, well that’s a much different agenda then stopping ‘catch and release,’” Durbin said.

Lawmakers have pitched several bills since last month on how to handle separated immigrant families — but so far none of them have been bipartisan.

A spokesperson for Feinstein said on Wednesday that negotiations continue among the four senators, but that they have yet reached a deal on Flores or alternatives to detention.

“Senator Feinstein is continuing to talk with Senators Durbin, Cruz and Tillis and hopes to come to agreement on a narrow bill to permanently bar children from being taken from their parents,” the spokesperson said.

Feinstein has introduced legislation backed by the entire Democratic caucus that would broadly let families detained along the border stay together with the “presumption” that it is not in their best interest to be detained. But it’s viewed as a non-starter for Republicans who argue that it would encourage additional illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, the political spotlight has shifted to the administration’s efforts to reunite families and a deeply partisan fight over “abolishing” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Judiciary Committee Democrats are demanding a hearing on the administration’s reunification efforts. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services briefed committee members on Tuesday.

The House on Wednesday passed a resolution supporting ICE, while a similar measure was blocked in the Senate.

Cruz blasted Democrats for blocking the resolution and warned that they would soon have their chance to prove they were serious about getting an agreement on separated families. His own legislation is a narrow bill that would let migrant families who declare asylum be detained together.

Cruz separately told reporters that any deal has to recognize that the “right place” is for kids and families to be together while also make sure to “respect the rule of law.”

We have to make sure that “we don’t enact policies that return to the failed policy of catch and release that only encourages more illegal immigration,” he said. “If we can do that we will have legislation that can pass and those negotiations remain ongoing.”

Tags abolish ice catch and release Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Donald Trump family detention ICE Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Cornyn Ted Cruz Thom Tillis Zero tolerance

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