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Trump, defiant as border crisis escalates, prepares to lobby House GOP on immigration bills

Washington Post

As he prepared to visit Capitol Hill, President Donald Trump on Tuesday continued to insist that Congress produce comprehensive immigration legislation, while anxious Republicans explored a narrower fix to the administration policy of separating migrant children from their parents.

"Now is the best opportunity ever for Congress to change the ridiculous and obsolete laws on immigration," Trump said in a tweet. "Get it done, always keeping in mind that we must have strong border security."

The message came as Trump was scheduled to visit Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday evening to lobby them on immigration legislation that would provide billions of dollars for his long-sought border wall and other security priorities. With his administration unwilling to unilaterally reverse its separation policy, that legislation could represent the best opportunity to bring an end to the turmoil.

But with that legislation in limbo, Republicans are also planning to defy the White House by crafting legislation to ease the effects of the administration policy of dividing families amid a public outcry and criticism from both parties that the practice was inhumane and un-American.

Several Senate Republicans and a prominent House conservative leader are planning to introduce bills that would narrowly target the family separations if more sweeping legislation fails.

A prominent House conservative leader said he is planning to introduce a bill that would narrowly target the family separations if more sweeping legislation fails.

"It takes out some of the more controversial issues like 'sanctuary cities,' the wall, DACA, and it keeps it very narrow," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said in a morning Fox News Channel interview.

The legislation would mark one of the rare times in Trump's presidency that Republicans have challenged him, and comes five months before midterm elections where GOP majority control of the House is at stake.

Trump on Tuesday repeated his false claim that Democrats were responsible for separation of parents from children consistent with the "zero-tolerance" policy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced with fanfare earlier this year.

"Democrats are the problem," he tweeted. "They don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can't win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!"

Trump's upcoming remarks to the House Republican Conference come days before lawmakers will vote on a pair of Republican bills meant to address the uncertain legal status of "dreamers" - young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children - after Trump moved last year to cancel the Obama administration program that protected them from deportation.

But the immigration debate has now become consumed by the consequences of the Trump administration's border policy announced last month, which has resulted in thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents when they are detained at the southern border.

Top GOP leaders have spoken out against the separations, including the No. 2 Senate Republican leader and the head of the party's national House campaign organization. Polls released Monday by CNN and Quinnipiac University showed that Americans oppose the policy by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

A defiant White House continues to defend the policy on a wide variety of sometimes contradictory rationales. Trump has persistently and falsely blamed the policy on Democrats while warning of an existential threat from illegal immigrants.

"If you don't have Borders, you don't have a Country!" he tweeted Tuesday.

But other White House officials have made a policy case for the separations. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters Monday that her department is merely enforcing existing laws and blamed immigrant parents for having "put their children at risk."

"Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it," she said. "Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States."

But two previous presidents operating under the same laws - a Republican and a Democrat - both generally refrained from separating families at the border. Some Trump administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, have openly cast the separation policy as a deterrent to future illegal immigration.

Congressional Democrats have called on the Trump administration to simply reverse the "zero tolerance" policy and return to the previous approach, under which families were not automatically charged with crimes and in some cases were released into the U.S. pending adjudication by immigration authorities.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., used an unrelated House hearing Tuesday morning to make an impassioned plea to his Republican colleagues to convince Trump to abandon the use of "child internment camps."

"I'm talking directly to my Republican colleagues: You need to stand up to President Trump," Cummings said at the outset of a hearing about a Justice Department review of its handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. "We need you to tell him to abandon this policy. . . . We need you to stand up for those children."

"We all should be able to agree that in the United States of America we will not intentionally separate children from their parents," Cummings said. "We will not do that. We are better than that. We are so much better."

But Republicans have generally accepted the premise that legislation is necessary.

"I think the law needs to be changed so that children can be kept with their parents," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said Tuesday in a CNN interview, calling for passage of the "consensus" immigration bill he helped negotiate with other House Republicans.

The question is whether any immigration legislation can possibly pass the House this week - let alone the Senate, where Democrats have more leverage.

The two bills set for a House vote this week would both address the status of dreamers, as well as provide funding for the border wall that Trump has long demanded. The bills differ in several ways, however.

One takes a more aggressive approach to immigration enforcement - for instance, requiring employers to screen their workers for legal work status using the federal "E-Verify" database - and does not guarantee dreamers a path to permanent legal residency. The other, which has been written to garner more Republican votes, omits some of the hard-line measures and offers dreamers a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

Both bills are expected to include language meant to address the family separations - in short, by allowing the Trump administration to keep families together in detention. But critics of the separation policy say the language falls well short of a solution to the crisis, arguing that draft language circulated last week would do nothing to compel the Trump administration to change its policy.

Neither bill is supported by Democrats, and it is unclear whether they have the support of enough Republicans to pass the House. Two conservative lawmakers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their deliberations said that numerous House members are wary that the GOP compromise bill omits the E-Verify requirement and that it could give the parents of dreamers an indirect path to U.S. citizenship.

Further raising doubts among conservative Republicans, the lawmakers said, is that the bill is all but dead on arrival in the Senate, where Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Monday called it a "sham of a bill" that "holds Dreamers and kids who have been separated from their parents hostage in order to cut legal immigration and enact the hard right's immigration agenda."

Conservatives, they said, have little reason to take a tough vote on a compromise bill that is not going to be passed into law.

At least two other efforts are underway in the Senate to draft legislation addressing the separation policy - a Democratic effort led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and a Republican effort from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, James Lankford, R-Okla., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

But the White House and key Republicans have not signaled that they would accept a standalone fix but instead want the problem addressed in broader legislation that includes border wall funding and other Trump priorities.

"We want to fix the entire system," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday. "We don't want to just tinker with it. The president is tired of watching people kick it down the road and not take responsibility and not fix the problems that we have."

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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