WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Republicans scrambled on Tuesday to craft legislation that would quell an outcry over the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border, with an opinion poll showing most Americans oppose the policy.
The family separations and detentions of children, highlighted by videos of youngsters in cages and an audiotape of wailing children, have sparked anger at home from groups ranging from clergy to influential business leaders, as well as condemnation abroad.
President Donald Trump arrived at Capitol Hill for a Tuesday evening meeting with House of Representatives Republicans to discuss their immigration legislation. He is focused on winning congressional funding for a wall he has long wanted to build along America’s southern border with Mexico, a plan resisted by Democrats.
Trump, who has made a tough stance on immigration a centerpiece of his presidency, has staunchly defended his administration’s actions. He has cast blame for the family separations on Democrats, although his fellow Republicans control both chambers in Congress and his own administration implemented the current policy of strict adherence to immigration laws.
On Tuesday, the president tried again to blame Democrats for what he called “loopholes” in the law that require families detained for entering the country illegally either to be separated or released.
“These are crippling loopholes that cause family separation, which we don’t want,” he said in remarks to the National Federation of Independent Business, adding he wanted Congress to give him the legal authority to detain and deport families together.
Trump has sought to link an end to the family separations to passage of a wider bill on immigration, prompting Democrats to accuse him of using children as hostages.
House Republicans were working on a revised draft of one version of an immigration overhaul that would prevent family separations in some cases for those attempting an illegal border crossing for the first time, according to a House Republican aide.
The draft bill was seen just days ago as unlikely to pass, but has gained support in the House. But it was widely seen as dead on arrival in the Senate, where minority Democrats could use procedural tactics to block it and where competing but far narrower legislation may be emerging from top Republicans.
‘CONTRARY TO AMERICAN VALUES’
Two of the top U.S. business groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, decried the separation policy on Tuesday and called for its immediate cessation.
“This practice is cruel and contrary to American values,” Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO.O) Chief Executive Chuck Robbins, who chairs the group’s immigration committee, said in a statement.
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents between mid-April and the end of May. The separations have been blasted by Democrats, some Republicans, medical professionals and rights activists.
They began after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April that all immigrants apprehended while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally should be criminally prosecuted.
Parents who are referred by border agents for prosecution are held in federal jails, while their children are moved into border shelter facilities under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a Department of Health and Human Services agency.
A Reuters/Ipsos national opinion poll released on Tuesday showed fewer than one in three American adults supporting the policy. The June 16-19 poll found that 28 percent of people polled supported the policy, while 57 percent opposed it and the remaining 15 percent said they did not know.
Republicans were much more supportive than Democrats, with 55 percent backing it versus just 12 percent of Democrats, but they appeared less enthusiastic about the policy than they were about the president’s overall record on immigration.
The images that have sparked widespread condemnation, of children in wire cages, are of a border patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas.
A number of Republican senators called on Trump on Tuesday to allow families to stay together if they had crossed the border illegally, and Senate leaders said their chamber could have legislation to address the family separations matter in a matter of days.
“My hope is that this is not going to be something we’re going to do over a matter of weeks and months, but something we can do in a matter of days, hopefully this week,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed the new urgency. “We hope to reach out to the Democrats and see if we can get a result, which means making a law and not just get into some kind of sparring back and forth that leads to no conclusion,” he said.
Top Democrats contended that Trump could change the policy with the stroke of a pen.
“The president is trying set this trap in the public mind that somehow there is a law requiring him to do this and Congress can undo it,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, who visited a detention center in Brownsville, Texas, over the weekend. “We know this is a problem that was manufactured six weeks ago, and we’re seeing the awful results today.”
Decrying “internment camps,” Democrats and their supporters disrupted a U.S. congressional hearing on Tuesday about an FBI probe.
With the sound of a young child crying in the background, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, broke from traditional protocol and started reading from a statement, saying: “These (migrant) children are not animals.” His Republican colleagues tried to shout over him: “Out of order!”
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Amanda Becker, Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington, Richard Lough in Paris and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Dan Burns; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney