Trump meets with Republicans amid furor over immigrant children

U.S. President Donald Trump met with Republicans on Capitol Hill tonight to talk about immigration amid an increasing uproar — from both opponents and some members of his own party — over his administration's policy of separating families after illegal border crossings.

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U.S. President Donald Trump met with Republicans on Capitol Hill tonight to talk about immigration amid an increasing uproar — both from opponents and some members of his own party — over his administration's policy of separating families after illegal border crossings.

Under the Trump administration's current policy, all unlawful crossings are referred for prosecution — a process that moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Under the Obama administration, such families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation.

Trump spoke briefly to reporters before going into the meeting: "the system has been broken for many years, the immigration system. It's been a really bad, bad system, probably the worst anywhere in the world. We're going to try and see if we can fix it."

People who were in the closed-door session, who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting, said Trump told House Republicans he was "1,000 per cent" with them on rival immigration bills up for votes, but it was not clear if he had a preference on how to handle family separations at the border.

According to a report from Reuters, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said that Trump told Republican members of Congress that they need to get something done on this issue "right away."

As Trump walked out of the session in the Capitol basement, he was confronted by about a half-dozen House Democrats, who yelled, "Stop separating our families!"

Later in the day, protesters heckled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as she ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, chanting "Shame!" and "End family separation!"

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Lawmakers from both parties are up in arms after days of news reports showing images of children being held at border facilities in cages and an audio recording first released by ProPublica of a young child pleading for his "Papa."

The issue boiled over Tuesday at a House hearing on an unrelated subject when protesters with babies briefly shut down proceedings.

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House oversight and government reform committee, pleaded with Republicans on the panel to end what he called "internment camps."

A view inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows detainees inside fenced areas at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, on June 17. (CBP/Reuters)

"We need you, those children need you — and I am talking directly to my Republican colleagues — we need you to stand up to President Donald Trump," he said.

The president, who put out a series of tweets on immigration on Tuesday, has defended his administration. In one tweet, he said: "Democrats are the problem. They don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can't win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!"

But Democrats, who have consistently said that Trump could act immediately to end the policy, aren't the only ones questioning the administration.

'Inhumane separation'

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, along with around a dozen Republican senators, on Tuesday sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying they support efforts to enforce immigration laws but "cannot support implementation of a policy that results in the categorical forced separation of minor children from their parents."

"We therefore ask you to halt implementation of the department's zero tolerance policy while Congress works out a solution that enables faster processing of individuals who enter our country illegally without requiring the forced, inhumane separation of children from their parents."

More than 2,300 minors were separated from their parents at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The department on Tuesday released the following numbers for people sent for processing after they were suspected of having illegally crossed the southwest U.S. border from Mexico, between May 5 and June 9.

  • 2,235 families.
  • 4,548 family members.
  • 2,342 children who were separated.
  • 2,205 adults who were referred for prosecution.

The House is already embroiled in an election-year struggle over immigration legislation that threatens to hurt Republicans at the polls in November.

House Republican leaders scrambled Tuesday to produce a revised version of a broader immigration bill to include a provision to resolve the situation of family separations.

The major change unveiled Tuesday would loosen rules that now limit the amount of time minors can be held to 20 days, according to a Republican source familiar with the measure. Instead, the children could be detained with their parents for extended periods.

Protesters from various faith groups gathered outside the Customs and Border Protection office in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to protest against the separation of parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

The revision would also give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to use $7 billion US in border technology funding to pay for family detention centres, said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and commented only on condition of anonymity.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also introduced legislation that the White House said it was reviewing.

Cruz's bill would double the number of federal immigration judges, authorize new temporary shelters to house migrant families and limit the processing of asylum cases to no more than 14 days — a goal immigrant advocates say would be difficult to meet.

"While cases are pending, families should stay together," tweeted Cruz, who is in an unexpectedly tough re-election battle.

The second-ranking Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said they're proposing a "humane, safe and secure family facility" where parents and minor children could be detained together.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, told reporters he's reaching out to Democrats for bipartisan backing, since the proposal would need to reach a 60-vote threshold to advance in that chamber.

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The administration is hoping to force Democrats to vote for the bills or bear some of the political cost in November's midterm elections. Democrats brushed aside that pressure.

"As everyone who has looked at this agrees, this was done by the president, not Democrats. He can fix it tomorrow if he wants to, and if he doesn't want to, he should own up to the fact that he's doing it," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have rallied behind an immigration bill from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California. Her bill would prohibit the separation of migrant children from their parents, with exceptions for findings of child abuse or trafficking. If separations occur, Homeland Security would have to provide clear guidelines for how parents can contact their kids.

One House Republican in a swing district, Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, said he is willing to endorse the Feinstein bill if that's what it takes.

See footage and images from inside some of the detention centres.

With files from Reuters and CBC News