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Congress has a half-dozen bills to stop family separations and no clear path forward

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks with reporters following a closed door luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Congress has at least six pieces of legislation drafted, introduced or in the works to stop the separation of immigrant families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and no clear pathway for moving any bill forward.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week to stop any further family separations, but it is largely seen as a temporary fix, giving Congress a limited amount of time to sort through its options and find a remedy.

Republicans and Democrats are holding out hope that the admittedly odd couple of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., can produce an acceptable, long-term fix for the crisis at the border and soon.

Following a closed-door Republican conference meeting, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would like to see the Senate vote on a Cruz-Feinstein bill before leaving Washington for the Fourth of July recess.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, stressed, "We need to pass this legislation yesterday or at least by the end of this week. And I hope we can do that on a bipartisan basis."

Cruz and Feinstein held their first meeting on Monday with Senators Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Feinstein said it was positive, but told reporters she doesn't expect a bill will move forward until at least the middle of July, after the congressional recess.

"There is no specific timeline," Feinstein said. When pressed on the urgency of a solution, she added, "We want to get it done."

In the meantime, the House is scheduled to vote on a broader immigration bill Wednesday that includes a provision to stop family separations. After the House rejected a similar immigration reform bill last week, many are skeptical that the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act will provide the long-term solution for keeping children and parents together.

"We want to keep families together and we want to secure the border and enforce our laws," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Tuesday, arguing the partisan immigration reform bill achieves both objectives.

"If that doesn't succeed, then we'll cross that bridge," Ryan told reporters, signaling the House leadership had not yet agreed on backup plan to deal solely with family separations.

There have been "side conversations" about at least five different Republican-sponsored stand-alone bills to address family detentions and separations, said Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. So far, the leadership has not provided any concrete direction or a timetable for bringing a solution to the floor.

"To me, it's less about when it happens than the fact that it happens," Stivers told Circa. "I think a lot of us want whatever works best."

The question that Republicans and Democrats are now struggling to answer is which of the many proposals works best.

Below are six proposals getting the most attention on the Hill:

Drafted by House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the provisions of this bill were incorporated into the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, that will be on the floor Wednesday.

The Act would prevent the separation of a child from their parent or legal guardian by keeping both in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. The measure ensures individuals arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for crossing the border are detained with their children. Those charged with felonies will be separated.

The bill is controversial because it would override the 2015 Flores Settlement Agreement, that limits the amount of time a child can be detained to 20 days. In doing so, it would essentially authorize the indefinite detention of minors with their families.

Introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein and in the House by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., these two bills have the backing of almost all Democrats. The bills are nearly identical and explicitly prohibits DHS from separating family units, except under extraordinary circumstances. It also reasserts protections for asylum seekers and the House version delays prosecutions for asylum seekers charged with illegal entry.

The bills are controversial because they do not address where families are kept as they await asylum hearings. No Republican has signed on in support of the bills that many have argued would codify a "catch and release" policy.

Sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, this bill would stop family separations by expediting judicial proceedings for individuals seeking asylum. The bill would authorize the addition of 375 immigration judges who would have a 14-day period to review asylum claims. The bill would also address the Flores Settlement, allowing children to be detained beyond 20 days, raising concerns about indefinite detention.

White House support for this bill is unclear. President Trump has criticized the idea of increasing the number of immigration judges, recently saying he prefers a process where migrants are quickly deported "with no Judges or Court Cases." Many Trump supporters believe he was referring to the process of expedited removals or self-deportation, used to quickly deport individuals from contiguous countries like Mexico and Canada.

Introduced by Sen. Thom Tillis, the bill would keep families together while providing additional resources for their housing and detention. The bill would also authorize an additional 225 immigration judges to more quickly adjudicate asylum claims and manage the current backlog in the immigration courts.

The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate, but could face opposition by President Trump over the issue of increasing the number of immigration judges.

  • Cruz-Feinstein

In both the Senate and the House, all eyes are on Senators Cruz and Feinstein who have yet to release a draft bill or an outline of how they will address the surge of families arriving at the southern border.

Among the bipartisan proposals being discussed around the Capitol include extending the lawful period minors can be detained (to avoid indefinite detention), using ankle-bracelets or other monitoring technologies to track individuals released into the United States while awaiting a court hearing and increasing the capacity of detention facilities.

The next steps may depend on how soon the Trump administration can provide answers to lawmakers' questions about the current state of affairs at the border.

Both Cruz and Feinstein confirmed they are still waiting to hear back from the administration about providing a briefing from leaders within the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and potentially the Justice Department.

After the "zero-tolerance" border enforcement policy resulted in the separation of more than 2,300 families, President Trump insisted the problem could only be solved by Congress.

In the coming weeks, the courts could get involved to enforce the Flores Settlement, if the Trump administration begins holding minors beyond 20 days.

"The president's executive order took a little pressure off the legislative effort. I think that pressure will build," Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told Circa. "This is where you actually need leadership. You need leadership on both sides of the aisle."


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