Politics

Trump Heads to Hill After Sowing Confusion on Immigration

President, Democrats in war of words over family separation policy

President Donald Trump will huddle with House Republicans on Tuesday afternoon to discuss two immigration overhaul bills. After signaling his opposition last week, he says he supports both. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senior White House officials say Democrats enraged by the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families should negotiate with Donald Trump. Yet when the president heads to Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon, he will see only Republican faces.

White House aides want to use the meeting to allow the president, in his own words, to clear up confusion he sowed in the House GOP conference late last week over its dueling immigration bills. He is expected to endorse both measures, with senior administration officials contending both would address the migrant separation issue.

“Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday during a contentious briefing at the White House. “Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and the security of the United States.”

Trump has directed all his blame at Democrats, despite his party’s control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. In recent days, he has alluded to an unnamed bill Democrats passed on their own that presumably was signed by an unnamed Democratic president.

Watch: How Trump Immigration Policy Could Threaten GOP Legislative Agenda Ahead of Midterms

But on Monday, his senior aides referred to the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. It passed unanimously and quickly got a signature from President George W. Bush.

“Congress passed a law,” a defiant Nielsen said Monday when asked about an op-ed penned by Bush’s wife, former first lady Laura Bush, opposing the family separation policy. “Congress can fix this tomorrow.”

[Trump Warns U.S. Could Follow Path of Germany on Immigration]

The Bush and Obama administrations opted against separating families unless there was a possible threat to the children or the United States.

Administration officials have said they are merely enforcing existing laws that dictate people trying to cross into the country illegally are, by definition, breaking the law. Their “hands are tied,” said Mercedes Schlapp, White House strategic communications director. 

“CHANGE THE LAWS!” the president tweeted several times during a Monday morning social media torrent about immigration laws and his administration’s hard-line policies.

Yet the current separation situation dates to a policy directive of zero tolerance by Attorney General Jeff Sessions this spring. 

Taking questions

Republicans are expected to press Trump on the family separation policy Tuesday. That’s if Trump takes questions, which he has not always done in Capitol Hill meetings, often described as intraparty pep rallies. 

The president and House GOP members will discuss a compromise measure hammered out by the conference’s various factions and a conservative bill pushed by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte.

The former would, among other things, reduce family separation. And lawmakers are expected to add language to the Goodlatte bill to address the issue.

[How Donald Trump Shivved a Compromise GOP Immigration Bill]

After confusion Friday — spawned by Trump’s impromptu comments that he opposed the compromise measure, which the White House hours later walked back — Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said the president supports both bills.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has urged her Democratic colleagues not to support either of the two GOP efforts, putting the onus on Republicans to pass something on their own. She called the administration’s separation policy “barbaric” and a “dark stain on our nation.”

The Trump policy “violates our asylum laws and the constitutional rights of parents,” Pelosi said, adding that Supreme Court rulings “protect parental rights and family integrity” and make the “separation and long-term detention of children … illegal.”

Democrats on defense

Trump’s trip to the Hill comes after Trump met with Republican senators at the White House on Monday to discuss funding border security.

And it follows his combative day on Twitter, during which the president slammed Democrats for refusing to “give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws.”

Meanwhile, one of his spokesmen was on the White House’s North Lawn, calling on Democratic members to come up with a broad immigration bill. “They could come to the table and fix this immediately. They’ve chosen not to do that,” Hogan Gidley said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer turned that rhetoric around, saying Trump could “fix it tomorrow if he wants to, and if he doesn’t want to, he should own up to the fact that he’s doing it.”

[How Donald Trump Shivved a Compromise GOP Immigration Bill]

The matter could put vulnerable congressional Democrats in a tight spot. One, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, said Monday he is “working with my Republican colleagues to find solutions to the issues that are not addressed in the ‘Keep Families Together Act,’” a bill crafted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that all the chamber’s Democrats have backed. No GOP senators, however, have done so.

But Manchin is optimistic, as ever, amid scant evidence any legislation on the matter is likely to move — especially in an election year. If if does, it could set back the remaining items on the Trump-GOP agenda, such as opioid and farm legislation.

“I continue to believe that the comprehensive 2013 immigration bill that included 700 miles of fencing, an additional 20,000 border control agents and other measures to secure our border is where we should begin this process,” he said in a statement.

Before any legislation like that emerges, Trump has to help House Republicans understand what he would sign. 

While the migrant separation debate has overshadowed broader policy discussions over the past week, the White House is likely to use the firestorm to drum up support for the two GOP bills.

“Many” of the loopholes that lead to migrant children and parents being separated at the southern border are addressed in one or both of the bills, which could hit the floor as early as this week, Nielsen said. If either becomes law, “then the families will stay together during the proceedings,” she said.

Illustrating the raw emotions of the situation, when Nielsen took questions, someone used a mobile device to play a ProPublica video depicting the cries and screams of children separated from adults who brought them to the border. The secretary was asked to explain how the situation did not constitute child abuse.

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