McCaskill warns against using children as 'leverage' in border debate
Kansas City area lawmakers from both parties have condemned the separation of families caught entering the country illegally and have promised a legislative fix is on the horizon.
U.S. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was one of 11 Republican senators to sign a letter Tuesday to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling for the Department of Justice to halt the policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border.
The letter pushed back on claims from Trump administration officials blaming the situation on Democrats or past administrations, telling Sessions that the “the immediate cause of the crisis is your Department’s recent institution of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy under which all adults who enter the United States illegally are referred for prosecution, regardless of whether such individuals are claiming asylum and regardless of whether they are accompanied by minor children.”
Roberts’ decision to sign the letter follows the introduction of bills from both parties intended to put a stop to the practice.
“We support the administration’s efforts to enforce our immigration laws, but we 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,” the letter asks.
Roberts’ fellow Kansas Republican, U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder from Overland Park, sent his own letter Monday calling on Sessions to take immediate action to halt the separation of families.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters that a bipartisan group of lawmakers that unsuccessfully advocated for an immigration bill earlier this year has been talking about possible solutions to end the practice of separating children from their families when they are caught entering the country illegally.
“Let’s hope the president picks up the phone and says we can secure the border without removing children from their families because we can,” McCaskill said. “I want to secure the border. Let me say it again. I want to secure the border. There’s a lot of things we can be doing to secure the border and none of them require separating children from their families.”
McCaskill noted that that the decision to pursue criminal charges against the families — on top of their expedited removal, which was carried out under previous administrations — is what has led to the housing of children in different facilities from their parents.
“First-time border crossers are misdemeanants. It is very unusual for the federal government to handle misdemeanors. I challenge Jeff Sessions to show me the dockets in every U.S. attorney’s offices around the country where they have a large number of misdemeanants,” said McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor.
More than 2,300 minors were separated from their children at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The conditions in the facilities housing children have come under scrutiny. A report by the Associated Press described children being housed in cages in a Texas holding facility, with bottles of water and bags of chips strewn across the floor.
McCaskill has signed on to a bill, introduced by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to end the family separations, but she said she also was willing to consider Republican proposals.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has joined U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in sponsoring a Republican plan to end the practice.
“I think Congress can and should solve this problem. I believe we will. I co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Cruz … to try to both create a way that families stay together, but also to get a reasonable number of judges so that these cases can be heard,” Blunt told reporters Tuesday.
He did not directly answer a question about whether he expected Democrats to support Cruz’s bill.
“I expect to solve the problem,” he said.
Asked if he thinks Trump should at least temporarily halt his administration's policy of separating kids from families while Congress works on a legislative fix, Blunt said that if Trump did that, Congress would lose incentive to act.
"If the problem is no longer there," Blunt said, "then Congress will not act to solve this problem."
Roberts has also signed onto the Cruz bill.
Blunt said the Feinstein and Cruz bills have "plenty of commonalities," and he's hopeful Democrats and Republicans can come up with a compromise that can pass.
"I'd like it to get done this week," Blunt said of a standalone bill to end family separations at the border. "This has been a disappointing place for a while. I'd like to see something get done."
Feinstein's bill establishes a preference for family unity and requires the Department of Homeland Security to develop policies to enable families that have been separated to become reunited.
McCaskill said that she has not yet read Cruz’s legislation but would give it her consideration after its details become public.
“I think that probably there is something we can do that would get 60 votes if we’re all willing to put down our political saber-rattling and actually try to find the solution that allows these children to remain with their families for an expedited removal,” McCaskill said.
McCaskill’s GOP challengers have split on the issue.
One of McCaskill’s Republican challengers, Austin Petersen, said Monday that separating families is “a terrible policy that must change immediately.”
However, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, Trump’s endorsed Republican candidate, stopped short of calling for the policy to end immediately and put the blame on McCaskill when asked about the policy Monday.
“The whole immigration system is a disaster, and Claire McCaskill should answer for that: she’s been in D.C. for over a decade and she has shown zero leadership to secure the border, stop sanctuary cities, or protect American workers,” Hawley said in a statement.
“Nobody wants to see children and parents separated, just like no one should want to see illegal drugs and gangs pouring across our border. But none of that will change until McCaskill and the D.C. crowd take some responsibility and build the wall and secure the border,” Hawley said.
He doubled down the Marc Cox Morning Show on Tuesday, saying McCaskill's support for Feinstein's bill means she's "basically giving illegal immigrants a free pass and allowing them to use children as a human shield."
Feinstein’s office pushed back on GOP claims about her bill Tuesday.
“Despite the misinformation spread by the RNC and others, the bill doesn’t bar prosecutions or arrests,” Feinstein’s office said.
McCaskill shrugged off Hawley’s criticism.
“There’s one thing you can be sure of: No matter what policy question my opponent is asked, he is somehow going to blame me rather than answering the question,” she said. “He did not answer the question other than to say 'build the wall' and that’s not the answer for the children who are in these facilities right at this moment.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., said in a statement that family separations are "a difficult issue" that the congresswoman is aware of.
"The House is scheduled to take up two important pieces of immigration legislation this week that addresses this issue as well as provides a (Dreamers) solution and increased funding to secure our borders," the spokeswoman, Anna Swick, said in an email. "The Congresswoman is a strong supporter of legal immigration and hopes the Congress will come together and move a solution forward."
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.