Trump digs in amid uproar on zero tolerance policy

Trump digs in amid uproar on zero tolerance policy
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Trump confirms 2018 US cyberattack on Russian troll farm Trump tweets his support for Goya Foods amid boycott MORE on Monday showed no signs of budging from his “zero tolerance” border policy as a growing number of Republicans criticized it for separating children from their families. 

The Trump administration is digging in, defending its stance while many Republicans on Capitol Hill are worried that the White House’s policy will become a huge election year issue. The immigration story has dominated headlines over the last several days and fractured the GOP. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump is scheduled to meet House Republicans Tuesday evening to discuss two GOP immigration bills that are expected to hit the floor this week.

At that meeting, Trump will face a conference intent on keeping its majority while grappling with immigration, possibly the most divisive issue among Republicans. But the top issue on the table won’t be citizenship for so-called Dreamers, the core issue that prompted the two bills. Rather, it will be the more than 2,000 children separated from their parents by border agents after entering the country illegally. 

It’s a new complication for two bills — one a conservative measure proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.), the other a deal between Republican centrists and GOP leaders — that already faced a tough road to become law.

“Instead of talking about that we’re talking about this issue down at the border,” said Chris Chmielenski, deputy director of NumbersUSA, a grass-roots political organization that advocates for reduced immigration.

In a series of tweets, Trump on Monday claimed criminals are using children in a Trojan horse–style operation to cross the U.S. border.

“Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country,” he wrote. “Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”

Trump and administration officials argue that it’s separating families because it is enforcing laws that Congress passed. 

However, many GOP lawmakers disagree. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE (S.C.), a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform who is now an ally of the president, told CNN that Trump could end the separation of family members “with a phone call.” 

Congressional Republicans are clearly nervous that the immigration story will overshadow the nation’s healthy economy this summer and fall. Rep. Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversNational Retail Federation hosts virtual 'store tours' for lawmakers amid coronavirus Stronger patent rights would help promote US technological leadership Republicans to introduce House version of Scott police reform bill MORE (Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he will “ask the Administration to stop needlessly separating children from their parents.” 

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) last week said he doesn’t want families separated and Republicans have noted that the pending immigration bills would change the administration’s policy. 

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynTexas lawmakers ask HHS to set up field hospital, federal resources in the state GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (R-Texas) on Monday told ABC News that “children shouldn’t be taken from their parents and left frightened and confused about where they are. “

Trump administration officials, including Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenThe Seila Law case: Liberty and political firing Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Sen. Kennedy slams acting DHS secretary for lack of coronavirus answers MORE and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called on Congress to pass immigration legislation. But it is highly unlikely any sweeping bill will be sent to Trump’s desk this year. 

The political problem facing the White House is that pressure will mount on Republican leaders to pass a narrow immigration bill reversing the administration’s policy at the border.

The Justice Department in April announced the zero tolerance policy on illegal border crossings, which means families traveling together have to be separated so the adults can be detained and tried for the misdemeanor.

The thousands of children separated from their families in the weeks since Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard Sessions Senate outlook slides for GOP Supreme Court blocks order that relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report MORE unveiled the policy caused an uproar among activists, Democrats and many Republicans, including some close to the president.

Former first lady Laura Bush, who rarely weighs in on policies coming out of the nation’s capital, ripped the Trump administration, calling the zero tolerance policy “cruel” and “immoral” in an op-ed for The Washington Post. 

First lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpStatue of Melania Trump set on fire in Slovenia The Memo: Trump gambles on school push The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook- Schools weigh reopening options MORE issued a statement Sunday saying she “hates to see children separated from their families.”

But the first lady’s statement, issued through communications director Stephanie Grisham, also said Trump “believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.” 

Faith leaders have also drawn a distance from the president on the issue, with some evangelicals — key allies to Trump — criticizing the policy.

“It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit,” said Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham.

Former White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciRepublican operatives pushing GOP turnout for Biden with new super PAC President sinks amid stumbles over protests Sunday shows preview: Protests against George Floyd's death, police brutality rock the nation for a second week MORE tweeted Monday “You can’t simultaneously argue that family separation isn’t happening, that it’s being used as a deterrent, that the Bible justifies it and that it’s @TheDemocrats fault. @POTUS is not being served well by his advisors on this issue.”

Administration officials have at times made versions of all three arguments laid out by Scaramucci.

Family separation as a deterrent was first floated by then-DHS Secretary and now White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE in March 2017, but the idea was scrapped after severe backlash.

With apprehensions at the border at a record low in 2017, the administration could boast that it had created enough of a deterrent to illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America without resorting to family separations.

But this spring, monthly apprehensions — the main indicator of illegal border crossing attempts — rose over 50,000 for three straight months.

While that number is about average for the season, it represents a huge increase over last year’s numbers.

“I think [the administration] were somewhat forced into the issue,” said Chmielenski. “Democrats saw the opportunity to jump on it as a political hot potato.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have launched a fiery public campaign designed to highlight the effects of the policy shift on the children. Over the weekend, groups of Democrats visited detention centers in Texas and New Jersey. And House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Justices rule Manhattan prosecutor, but not Congress, can have Trump tax records Supreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress Pelosi on Baltimore's Columbus statue: 'If the community doesn't want the statue, the statue shouldn't be there' MORE (D-Calif.) advanced the effort on Monday, joining nearly a dozen members of her caucus on a visit to a similar facility in San Diego. 

The Democrats are accusing Trump of adopting a “barbaric” practice, in Pelosi’s description, as leverage to force Democrats to support the president’s tough enforcement agenda, including full funding for his border wall.

“There’s just something fundamentally wrong with their reasoning — except when you understand that they’re doing this … to get other bad immigration policies,” Pelosi said afterward. “[But] this is not an immigration issue, it’s a humanitarian issue.”

Democrats have no power to overturn the policy on their own, hoping instead that the public outcry will force the hand of either administration officials or Republican leaders in Congress.

“We can urge the president to take that pen and reverse his order,” said Rep. Juan VargasJuan C. VargasHispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs Hispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Activists, analysts demand Congress consider immigrants in coronavirus package MORE (D-Calif.). “That’s ultimately what has to happen.”

Still, administration officials stuck to their guns, blaming Democrats, advocates and the press for creating a perception of mistreatment of minors.

“It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of — don’t believe the press,” Nielsen told the National Sheriffs’ Association Monday.

Nielsen, Sessions and House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseCheney clashes with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks GOP-Trump fractures on masks open up MORE (R-La.) attended the sheriffs’ event. Nielsen subsequently briefed reporters at a tense White House briefing Monday evening.

“The children are not being used as a pawn. We are trying to protect the children, which is why I’m asking Congress to act,” said Nielsen.

Both the Goodlatte bill and the compromise GOP bill address family separations, but critics say the solutions proposed in them would create a situation where entire families are detained, in some cases without the proper safeguards for detained minors.