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Lawmakers Renew Efforts to Pass Family Separation Bill

But with House already out for recess, no legislative solution possible until September

A girl participates in a rally at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington on June 27 to to protest the Trump administration policy that separated migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A girl participates in a rally at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington on June 27 to to protest the Trump administration policy that separated migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers say they are renewing efforts to find what has been elusive legislation to keep families together at the U.S.-Mexico border, as the Trump administration announced it would meet the latest court deadline for reuniting more than 1,400 children it had separated from their immigrant parents.

Department of Homeland Security officials said they expected to complete all “eligible” reunifications by midnight Thursday, Pacific time. Beyond those, 711 children remain in custody because they’re not “eligible” for reunification, according to the department. Of those, 431 have a parent who was deported from the U.S. without them, officials said.

Democratic Reps. Adriano Espaillat of New York, Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois, Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon and Pramila Jayapal of Washington introduced a bill earlier Thursday that would force the administration to reunite immigrant children who were separated from their parents at the border under its zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized entry to the U.S.

“Separating children from their parents as they flee violence and seek a safe future is abhorrent and can lead to permanent harm,” Bonamici said in a statement. “The Trump administration needs to stop making excuses and reunite these kids with their families as quickly as possible so children can begin to heal from this traumatic experience.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris introduced a Senate version of the bill earlier this month and has 16 co-sponsors, all of them fellow Democrats.

House members began leaving Washington for their summer recess on Thursday, assuring no action on any legislative solution until September.

Watch: Odds of a Government Shutdown Tick Up as House Leaves for Recess With Unfinished Business

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However, some Senate Republicans said they are optimistic they can pass legislation soon to keep immigrant families together at the border.

“I am hopeful that we can come together. I don’t know if we will, but we should, and I am going to continue working to get that done,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said.

For weeks, Cruz has worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee; Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois; and North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis on a bipartisan compromise that could garner enough votes to pass the Senate. However, the lawmakers have reported little progress toward a deal.

Cruz introduced a separate bill with 21 Republican co-sponsors. It is considered the more conservative of the bills to address family separation because it would also place tight deadlines on how long an asylum-seeker’s case can last and how quickly such families can be deported if their claim is found to be insufficient for refuge in the United States.

Previous deadline

Thursday’s deadline was the second the Trump administration was given to reunite families that were separated at the border. In late June, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered the government to reunite children under the age of five with their families by June 10. The administration was unable to comply with the deadline, reuniting only four out of 102 children with their parents.

Democrats say there’s an urgent need for legislation.

“I would take issue with anyone that says the government has done well because it announced that there are individuals who will never be reunited and will be up for adoption,” Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said Thursday. “I believe this government should be held in contempt, and I join my colleagues in outrage to express that this Congress must act and I believe that every child should be reunited with their parents or relatives.”

House lawmakers have taken some measures to address family separation and reunification efforts. Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a draft bill that would provide $51.4 billion to the Homeland Security Department in fiscal 2019. In a rare moment of bipartisanship in a typically hyperpartisan debate, the committee included two amendments designed to support undocumented migrant families separated by the Trump administration.

One amendment, by Kansas GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder, the chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, inserted language into the committee report directing DHS to allow detained immigrants to make phone calls free of charge and to increase unannounced inspection of detention facilities. It would also codify into law language requiring DHS to allow members of Congress to enter the facilities.

The second amendment, introduced by Yoder and California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations panel, inserted into the committee report language that DHS “shall only separate a child from a parent if the parent has a criminal history, a communicable disease, or is determined to be unfit or a danger to the child.”

Some Republicans have dismissed Democrats’ concerns as “campaign rhetoric.”

“The Trump administration is trying to be practical and bring these families together,” Texas Rep. Lamar Smith said Thursday. “I compliment the president on his actions.”

Other Republicans said President Donald Trump needs to address the broader question of why families are trying to seek shelter in the U.S.

“This is a symptom of a bigger problem,” Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse said. “Instead of spending all of this money on the border, maybe we need to see if there is anything we can do in their home countries to help stabilize their homelands.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, has scheduled a Tuesday hearing on the the Trump administration’s family reunification efforts.

Dean DeChiaro contributed to this report.

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