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WASHINGTON -- Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Sunday called for Congress to pass a law ending the Trump administration's practice of separating and detaining families trying to cross the border into the United States, but the two sides remain divided on what the legislation should look like.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and officials from the Department of Homeland Security have defended the practice of separately detaining children and parents who try to cross the border, which has led to about 2,000 children being separated from their parents in the past 45 days.

President Donald Trump's administration has received significant push-back from Democratic lawmakers, several of whom headed to the Texas border and inland detention centers on Sunday to draw attention to the issue and stump for bills they have filed in Congress -- which have failed to earn any Republican support.

Republican lawmakers also have registered frustration with the recent detentions, with some, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, questioning whether the number of children separated from parents "may well be higher" than reported.

"The secretary of homeland security said that if parents present at a legal port of entry with their children, with the claim of asylum, that their children would not be taken away -- yet there are numerous credible media accounts showing that is exactly what is happening," Collins said on CBS' Face the Nation, adding, "The administration needs to put an end to that, right off."

She rejected the administration's argument that it was preventing child trafficking, saying, "That is not what's going on."

"From the experience of previous administrations, it does not act as a deterrent to use children in this fashion," Collins said, stressing that the practice is "traumatizing" for the children, who are "innocent victims."

"It is inconsistent with our American values to separate these children from their parents unless there's evidence of abuse or another very good reason," she said.

Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May after Sessions announced a new "zero-tolerance" policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with crimes but the parents are.

"There are other ways to negotiate between Republicans and Democrats. Using children, young children, as political foils is abhorrent," said Sen Jack Reed, D-R.I.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., said Trump "could pick up the phone and stop it today."

Even first lady Melania Trump, who has tended to stay out of contentious policy debates, waded into the issue. Her spokesman said that the first lady believes "we need to be a country that follows all laws" but also one "that governs with heart."

"Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform," spokesman Stephanie Grisham said.

Collins and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., sent a letter to the administration seeking more details about the program. But though she is critical of the Trump administration, Collins also took issue with a Democratic effort led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to end the family-separation tactics, calling it "too broad."

Instead, she said, the Senate should "try again" with a bipartisan immigration bill that fell short of the 60-vote procedural threshold earlier this year -- a vote that Collins suggested might have been successful had the Department of Homeland Security not "issued an inflammatory news release" the night before "that torpedoed the bill."

"We should not give up," Collins said. "We need to fix our immigration laws, and using children is not the answer."

[U.S. immigration: Data visualization of selected immigration statistics, U.S. border map]

Democrats in the House are expected to file a measure similar to Feinstein's this week, according to Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, who spoke Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. Neither effort is expected to garner Republican support.

But the House will be taking votes on two immigration bills whose fate is uncertain -- especially after Trump suggested Friday that he would not sign either one.

Trump's comments touched off confusion as White House officials swiftly attempted to walk back the remarks, saying he did support the GOP-led efforts, despite suggesting otherwise.

One of the Republican immigration bills, a hard-line effort led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, is not expected to garner enough support to pass in the chamber.

The other, described as a compromise between the moderate and conservative factions of the GOP, fully funds the president's desired wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, ends the diversity visa lottery and family-based immigration, and incorporates a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers" whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as children.

The measure, which was drafted with White House input, would also stop the practice of family separation, but not the detentions, only for those families that arrive at the border seeking asylum.

Trump is expected to speak to House Republicans directly about immigration and other matters in a meeting Tuesday ahead of the planned Thursday votes. The president has been anything but conciliatory on the matter.

Trump has accused Democrats of promulgating "laws" that have caused family separation at the border -- though there are no laws mandating that children be taken away from any adult arriving at the border.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., appearing Sunday on CNN, noted that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had spoken about how the administration has "discretion" at the border -- concluding that "clearly this government, this president, is using his discretion" to separate families.

Trump has also criticized Democrats for their refusal to accept a bill that would fully fund the border wall and end family reunification visas.

Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., likened the president's demands to extortion.

"What the administration is doing is they're using the grief, the tears, the pain of these kids as mortar to build their wall," Schiff said. "It's an effort to extort a bill to their liking in the Congress. It's, I think, deeply unethical."

O'Rourke said Sunday that Congress would not pass an immigration bill "at the cost of ending family migration, which is the history of this country."

O'Rourke is one of several Democratic lawmakers who headed to the border and to detention centers this weekend to mark Father's Day with a public demonstration against the family-separation and child-detention policies.

"I hope to produce the outrage and the public pressure to force those in power to do the right thing," he said.

"This is inhumane. I'd like to say it's un-American, but it's happening right now in America," O'Rourke added. "We will be judged for what we do or what we fail to do now. This is not just on the Trump administration -- this is on all of us."

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said Sunday on Meet the Press that she "very forcefully" objected to the implication that Trump sought to use children as a bargaining chip. "I certainly don't want anybody to use these kids as leverage," she said.

The idea of a legislative solution earned the endorsement of Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who said Sunday on Face the Nation that he thought Sessions was "not giving the president the best advice" on how to handle the situation.

But other Trump allies defended the policy.

"It's zero tolerance. I don't think you have to justify it," former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said Sunday on ABC's This Week.

U.S. religious leaders have castigated the policy. The Rev. Franklin Graham, who's typically a Trump ally, told the Christian Broadcasting Network that it's "disgraceful, it's terrible, to see families ripped apart, and I don't support that one bit." Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that "separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."

Information for this article was contributed by Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post, Jennifer Epstein of Bloomberg News and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press.

A Section on 06/18/2018

Print Headline: Immigration rule draws ire of lawmakers; Family separations decried, but legislative fix elusive

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