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No clear path forward in Congress to end family separations

Consensus is building on a litany of proposals to end the Trump administration's policy, but there isn't a clear legislative path forward yet.
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WASHINGTON — Consensus is building among Republicans and Democrats in Congress to end the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border, but the legislative path forward is far from clear.

President Donald Trump has put the onus on Congress to end the policy, and members from both parties are scrambling to come up with a solution — even though the administration could stop the practice at any moment.

Nearly two months into the implementation of the policy at the border, congressional members are sounding the alarm and vowing to find a solution as images of mothers being torn from their children permeate the news.

The issue poses a significant challenge to a Congress that has been unable to pass any significant immigration legislation for nearly 30 years. And the urgency has grown as Republicans fret about a backlash from midterm voters in less than six months.

The president is traveling to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to address House Republicans about their attempt to solve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, but the separation of families is likely to take center stage, especially as many lawmakers continue to hear from constituents overwhelmingly opposed to the policy.

Still, the numerous solutions that have been floated have gained little consensus, with Republicans and Democrats at odds on the details. And members of both parties are frustrated and angry that the president has put them in the position of fixing something that he could solve.

“This immediate problem is being caused by Donald Trump and (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. “They can quote the Bible and do all they want, (but) there’s no law that requires them to do that. They can fix it immediately and I wish they would.”

Trump said Monday that a solution could be quickly found if “Democrats come to the table.” And Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen said that “Congress alone” can fix the problem. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called that assertion “amazing.”

“That is not the case. Otherwise how could the previous two administrations have rejected this approach?” she rhetorically asked.

Democrats, many of whom have traveled to the border or visited detention centers in recent days, have united behind legislation that would prohibit separating children from their parents or guardian except in cases of abuse or trafficking. The Keep Families Together Act, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has the support of every Democrat in the Senate.

The partisan divide is evident. No Republican has signed onto the Democratic legislation, except for Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, who released a statement saying he was talking to Feinstein to join a companion bill in the House.

But most Republicans are discussing a series of other measures to address the situation, proving that, like most issues pertaining to immigration, a legislative fix is going to be difficult to achieve.

Democrats want to pass clean legislation that changes nothing but reins in the executive branch, prohibiting the administration from separating families.

Republican solutions are attempting to remake a portion of the immigration process, which is likely to get little support from Democrats.

Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, both Republicans, have promoted their own separate bills to ensure that families are kept together. But their bills, still being crafted, address the detention system by expediting the hearings that determine if a family is deported or able to stay in the U.S.

“The answer is not what congressional Democrats are proposing: simply releasing illegal aliens and returning to the failed policy of ‘catch and release,’” Cruz wrote in a statement. “Rather, we should fix the backlog in immigration cases, remove the legal barriers to swift processing, and resolve asylum cases on an expedited basis.”

Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said he agreed with the White House position that the policy needed to be changed by Congress, arguing the new policy simply reflects the Trump administration's adherence to the letter of the law. He said he hoped to have a bill in the coming weeks.

“Right now it’s just a handful of us," Cornyn told reporters. "but I think everybody understands the urgency of getting a solution."

At least three other Republican bills could be introduced in the Senate. And the House plans to take up two pieces of legislation on Thursday, primarily meant to solve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals stalemate. Measures to address the separation of families have been added to both with the same solution — allow families to stay together but make it exponentially more difficult to obtain asylum, which is what most families crossing the border are seeking.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are feeling the pressure from constituents. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who represents a district that Trump won in 2016, said that 96 percent of calls into her office are from constituents who disagree with the policy. Of 130 calls in two days, her office says, only five said they support the president’s actions.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., predicted that public pressure on Trump will become too great and that Congress won’t have to intervene.

Kaine said he thinks the president "will eventually make a sniveling retreat from this policy," especially with his own wife, Melania, saying in a statement that she "hates to see children separated from their families."

“But the American public is not going to take this," Kaine said.

Garrett Haake, Marianna Sotomayor and Alex Moe contributed.