Washington • Utah’s members of Congress say the stories of children being ripped away from their parents at the southern U.S. border shows there’s dire need to pass immigration reform, though it’s unclear a divided Washington would be able to accomplish it anytime soon.
A spokeswoman for Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said “frankly” he finds the situation “abhorrent.”
“It is against Utah values to put young children at risk by forcibly separating them from their families,” said spokeswoman Katie Thompson. “He strongly believes that Congress needs to find a way to protect both the family unit and our country through real immigration reform.”
By some estimates, more than 1,400 children have been separated recently from their parents after coming into the United States illegally, a crackdown by the Trump administration to deter such border crossings. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May a “zero tolerance” approach to people entering the United States illegally, meaning that all immigrants coming to America without documentation would be prosecuted.
Adults charged with misdemeanors are likely to be separated from their children. One Honduran man killed himself while in custody after authorities took his children away.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the problem isn’t new — that the Obama administration faced the same issue — but that something should be done.
“While many reports about those numbers and practices rely on largely incomplete or inaccurate information, they raise again the importance of passing immigration legislation in Congress that provides clarity for those protecting our borders and those working to gain citizenship in the United States, particularly children brought here illegally through no fault of their own,” Hatch said in a statement.
Efforts to pass any meaningful reform have failed in recent years with die-hard conservatives breaking with their own Republican leaders on any approach and Democrats calling for more protections. President Donald Trump has demanded tens of millions of dollars to strengthen the physical barriers at the border.
Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti and who has been trying to force House leaders to hold a vote on legislation protecting young undocumented immigrants, said that the situation now only proves Congress needs to act.
“The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy highlights the fact that our nation’s immigration system is broken and in need of reform,” Love said in a statement. “Every day, I am doing everything I can to compel Congress to address this important issue and remain hopeful that we will finally take action in the near future.”
That’s not the way that Love’s Democratic challenger sees it.
“Separating children from their parents is fundamentally inhumane and morally repugnant,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who is running for Love’s seat in Congress.
“We’ve been waiting on Rep. Love and the rest of Congress to do something for years. Voting against solutions to our immigration problems, celebrating the demise of DACA, and then trying to bill yourself as part of the solution is the type of morally bankrupt leadership we here at home are tired of.”
Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said there are solutions that would work.
“Nobody wants to separate parents from their children under any circumstance,” Carroll said in a statement. “We need to find a way that migrants from Central America can apply for asylum at the U.S Embassy in Mexico City. Senator Lee is trying to identify legislation that would make that happen more often.”
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the separations are “truly heartbreaking” but there are several factors at play, including that there’s only so long border officials can leave a child with an adult charged with a crime.
“That forces these separations,” Stewart said. “We need to finance more family detention centers and also address the legal implications of how to keep immigrant children with their families while still enforcing immigration laws. I want to keep families together, give immigrants the opportunity to apply for legal status, and secure the border. I believe Congress is headed in the right direction with my immigration priorities.”