Washington • Twelve Republican senators joined Sen. Orrin Hatch on Tuesday in urging Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop the family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border until Congress can pass legislation dealing with the issue.
The letter describes family separations as a “crisis” caused by a new policy of referring all adults who illegally enter the United States for federal prosecution, including those who are accompanied by young children.
“We support the administration’s efforts to enforce our immigration laws,” the letter states, “but we cannot support implementation of a policy that results in the categorical forced separation of minor children from their parent.”
In addition to Hatch, a Utah Republican, the letter is signed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, among others.
“We believe a reasonable path forward can be found that accommodates the need to enforce our laws while holding true to other, equally essential values,” the senators wrote.
Hatch circulated the letter as criticism of the Trump administration policy grows. More than 2,000 children have been taken from a parent’s arms under the “zero tolerance” policy that says all border crossers, including those seeking asylum, will be prosecuted federally.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, didn’t sign Hatch’s letter and Lee’s office said he prefers to work with GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas on legislation that would allow immigrant families to stay together while their asylum claims are processed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday he would bring up legislation to keep families intact at the border but that he wouldn’t try to pass some overarching bill to deal with other immigration issues.
“My assumption is in order to fix this problem, you can’t fix all the problems,” McConnell told reporters.
But he said the chamber would act to ensure the border crisis doesn’t continue.
“I support, and all of the senators of the Republican conference support, a plan that keeps families together,” McConnell told reporters.
On Monday, Hatch and others in Utah’s federal delegation called on the White House to end the separations and said they support immigration reform that protects families fleeing from Central and South America.
“The way it’s being handled right now isn’t acceptable. It’s not American,” Hatch told reporters Monday. “I think we’ve got to do whatever it takes to try and keep families together.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who heads the House Natural Resources Committee, said Tuesday he plans to amend immigration legislation House leaders are bringing forward to include language that would accomplish his long-sought goal to waive environmental laws within 100 miles of U.S. borders of Mexico and Canada for any border patrol activities.
The move would allow the Border Patrol to use motorized vehicles and install structures on federal lands without going through environmental assessments.
Currently, border agents must have exigent circumstances to use vehicles in wilderness areas near the border — if, say, they were chasing a suspected drug courier. Bishop’s change would expand that to 100 miles of the U.S. borders and allow unfettered access.
“Compassion and security are not mutually exclusive,” Bishop said in a statement. “Our borders must be secured, and we must give due respect to the family unit. Improved border security requires a wall and guaranteed access to the border for immigration agents. Legislation must include my provisions, which allow these agents to do their jobs.”
Bishop has pressed for changes to the law that he says now inhibits Border Patrol agents along the border, which includes national parks and wilderness areas.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said Tuesday that Bishop is using the family separation issue to pass his poison-pill language.
“House Republicans are not working with Democrats, so we don’t know what will be in the bills they bring to the floor, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they propose waiving multiple environmental laws within 100 miles of the border,” Grijalva said. “They want to waive environmental laws anywhere they can for any reason they can imagine, so alleged border security is as good an excuse for them as any. These Republican bills will destroy families and lives. Why not destroy the environment while they’re at it?”
Correction: Rep. Raul Grijalva is a Democrat from Arizona. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated he was from another state.