WASHINGTON – Congress members left town for a week-long Fourth of July recess without taking action to stop the crisis of family separations at the U.S.-Mexican border.
House and Senate leaders had expressed hope that Congress could act quickly last week to pass a narrow bill that would allow immigrant children to remain with their parents at detention centers beyond a 20-day limit. At least five bills have been offered, but lawmakers have been unable to unite around any of them.
Both chambers adjourned Thursday without a solution. They will return July 9.
Members of both parties condemned separating children from their parents as more than 2,000 babies, children and adolescents were taken from their mothers and fathers as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration initiative announced in April. The policy has mostly affected families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, who flee widespread gang violence and some of the highest murder rates in the world.
Conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, summed up the reaction of most lawmakers when he said that "all Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers."
"This must stop. Now," Cruz said.
That has proved difficult.
Amid growing public outcry, Trump reversed his policy, ordering that parents and children be kept together in detention centers after the parents are charged with crossing the border illegally.
However, a court ruling in 2015 said a legal agreement in 1997, known as the Flores Settlement, prohibits immigration officials from keeping children in detention centers with adults for more than 20 days, even if they are with their parents. After those 20 days, children must be sent to separate youth detention facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Every day Congress fails to act, more families face separation.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., offered a bill – the Equal Protection of Unaccompanied Minors Act – that would keep parents and children together in detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security.
The only exception: If parents or legal guardians are charged with a felony, they could not remain with their children. Most of the adults crossing the border are charged with the misdemeanor crime of entering the USA illegally.
The measure was part of a much broader immigration bill that was defeated in the House on Wednesday, but Meadows and other supporters want lawmakers to vote on his legislation as a standalone bill.
"We need to better enforce our immigration laws, but we can do so while keeping parents and children together," Meadows said. "I believe my bill will help do that."
Democrats said that keeping children in detention indefinitely with their parents is not an acceptable solution.
"Indefinite detention of children – they want to overturn the Flores case by making it longer," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday. "That is not going in a positive direction."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., introduced a Democratic alternative – the Keep Families Together Act – that would prohibit immigration officials from separating children from their parents, except in extraordinary circumstances.
It would limit the criminal prosecution of immigrants who seek asylum in the USA. The bill would delay prosecution of adults for illegal entry or re-entry into the country but does not specify where parents and children should stay while waiting to state their cases in court.
"The Keep Families Together Act does what this administration won’t do, by including a variety of measures to prevent children from being separated from their parents," Nadler said. "I urge my Republican colleagues to stand on the right side of history by supporting this legislation."
Republicans oppose the bill, charging that it is essentially a "catch and release" program that would let people go inside the USA with no guarantee that they would show up for their court hearings.
The best hope for a bipartisan compromise may be in the Senate, where the unlikely duo of Cruz and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are working on a bill that would keep migrant families together without detaining them indefinitely or letting them go.
Among the options: using ankle bracelets instead of detention to keep parents from fleeing while waiting with their children for court hearings.
"This is a manufactured crises, plain and simple," Feinstein tweeted this week. "Previous presidents have found ways to enforce our immigration laws without separating children from their parents. If the president won’t protect children and keep families together, then Congress must."