Senators restart talks to fix family separations

Greg Nash

As one Senate committee’s members appear to have hit a wall in their efforts to craft a bill to fix family separations at the border, a second Senate panel is quietly starting their own negotiations.

The new push comes as the politics of family separation legislation has grown increasingly partisan as both sides seize on the issue to fire up their bases heading into the November midterm elections, where the control of Congress hangs in the balance. 

{mosads}But GOP Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) wants the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he oversees, to try to hash out an agreement on legislation after the negotiations among Judiciary Committee members stalled. 

Johnson is convening members of his committee Wednesday to start talks aimed at finding a bipartisan starting point for a new round of negotiations. 

“We’re holding a meeting … to first kind of lay out the goals, find out what we can agree on. Let’s make sure we all agree on the facts. If we don’t, try to reconcile the disagreements and then move forward in a problem-solving type of process,” Johnson told The Hill on Tuesday.

He also circulated a memo to members of the panel outlining a potential pathway for legislation, which would allow families to be detained together as their cases get worked through the legal system, authorize more immigration judges and prioritize the adjudication of the cases. 

“It is said that one eats an elephant one bite at time. As recent history proves, the problems surrounding immigration are complex and difficult to tackle. I suggest we focus on this one issue, family separation versus ‘catch and release’, and attempt to take one bite out of the immigration and border security debate,” Johnson says in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill. 

With Republicans holding a majority on the committee they could pass legislation without help from Democrats. But any legislation will need bipartisan support — and 60 votes — to ultimately clear the Senate. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, warned that the talks were in the early stages and not close to being ready to move legislation.

“We’re a long way from any kind of agreement. I always want to keep the door open to any kind of discussion that can address any of the items that we have an our to-do list as it relates to immigration,” she told The Hill. “[But] we’re just at the beginning part of that process.” 

Any attempt to fix family separation faces an uphill fight in the Senate. An initial round of talks — spearheaded by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — stalemated earlier this month amid deep party-line divisions on what to do with detained families.

Feinstein said on Tuesday that the four are continuing to talk and she is “hopeful that we are close to an agreement and the bill could enjoy broad bipartisan support.”

But senators at times talked past each other at a Judiciary Committee hearing on separated families. Republicans touted legislation from Tillis, while Democrats urged the Senate to pass legislation from Feinstein. Neither of the bills have bipartisan support. 

Two issues which are crucial to any agreement have emerged as major roadblocks to any negotiations: What to do about the Flores settlement, which places restrictions on how long children can be detained, and alternatives to detaining families together for potentially indefinite periods of time.

“There’s a profound disagreement between the parties as to whether you need to do anything to allow the department … to keep the families together,” Tillis said on Tuesday, adding that Democrats hadn’t indicated they are open to changing Flores.

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 limit the detention of most immigrant children beyond 20 days.

Asked how he would get an agreement on Flores, Johnson acknowledged that if lawmakers want to keep families together while also enforcing immigration laws “something’s got to give.” 

“We’ll talk through it. I don’t know what the outcome will be. I think the Senate Judiciary bill makes a lot of sense, so we’ll start with that structure and we’ll see where we go from there,” he said. 

Immigration legislation normally falls under the purview of the Judiciary Committee. Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, noted that there was a “jurisdictional issue” with any family separation legislation but that he was “anxious” to see what Johnson could come up with. 

To help ensure a bill, once it is introduced, gets sent to the Homeland Security Committee, Johnson asked his committee staff to start drafting legislation in June that would address family separations but also include border security provisions. 

“I’ve spoken with Tillis and Sen. Cornyn and they’ve obviously reached a bit of an impasse,” Johnson said. 

According to the memo circulated to committee members, he is proposing folding a slate of border security bills — including two from McCaskill and another from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — into his family separation legislation. 

But the effort to jumpstart negotiations comes as the fight over immigration has become increasingly divided. The issue jumped into the national spotlight in June after Trump’s “zero tolerance” policies resulted in immigrant families being separated after they were detained along the border. 

Senators tried, and failed, to pass legislation from Tillis and Feinstein on the Senate floor last week but were blocked in both cases by members of the other party. Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called on Tuesday for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign over the policy

“It is and was a cruel policy inconsistent with the bedrock values of the nation,” Durbin said during a Judiciary Committee hearing. “Someone in this administration has to accept responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Republicans have seized on the push by some progressives to “abolish” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), arguing it’s a sign of Democrats moving to the left even as they try to defend a slate of Senate seats in red and purple states in November’s midterms.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) visited an ICE facility in Kentucky late last week and has repeatedly noted that potential 2020 White House contenders have called for nixing the agency. 

“This is the moment we’re in. Leading Democrats taking cues from the open-border socialist crowd,” he said on Tuesday. “Talk about a political stunt. The American people want nothing to do with these dangerous antics.”

Tags Bob Menendez Claire McCaskill Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin John Cornyn Kirstjen Nielsen Mitch McConnell Ron Johnson Ted Cruz Thom Tillis

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