Donald Trump might have a pen and a phone after all, but we’ll get to that in chronological order. After a late-night meeting with the president, Paul Ryan announced this morning that the House would vote tomorrow on a bill that would end family separations in border enforcement. The bill would provide both legal and financial support for keeping families housed together throughout the adjudication process, Ryan pledged. “We do not want children from their parents,” Ryan said, adding that “we can enforce our immigration laws without breaking families apart”:
NEW: Speaker Ryan says House will vote tomorrow on legislation keeping families apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border together throughout their legal proceedings.
— ABC News (@ABC) June 20, 2018
Ryan didn’t offer too many details about the bill other than the funding for new family detention centers. The effort appears to mirror a pledge made by Trump earlier on Twitter:
Marco Rubio even threw in a new hashtag for the efforts in Congress to undo the outcomes of zero-tolerance enforcement on the border:
Returning to a policy that only adults with children are released would create an incentive to bring kids. Yes separating families is cruel,but so is a policy that encourages parents to bring their kids on a dangerous journey. Instead lets #DetainandMaintain families together
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) June 20, 2018
The White House quickly threw its support to Ryan after the announcement:
JUST IN: President Trump would support a bill specifically aimed at halting his administration’s policy of separating children from parents who cross the Southern border illegally, White House official tells NBC News – @kwelkernbc @GeoffRBennett
— NBC Politics (@NBCPolitics) June 20, 2018
In fact, the White House is now considering an EO to bridge the gap in the meantime:
EXCLUSIVE: @realDonaldTrump considering some sort of executive action today to allow children to stay with detained parents through immigration adjudication process. Sources say Admin believes it is likely to draw a court challenge on the basis of Flores v Reno
— John Roberts (@johnrobertsFox) June 20, 2018
That raises all sorts of questions, and not just in the legal sphere. If Trump could have accomplished this by EO, even temporarily, why didn’t he do so right off the bat? The White House has been arguing — at times, anyway — that Trump’s hands are tied and he has no choice but to follow the law and court precedents. That’s probably true, and if this EO gets challenged it’s likely to draw an injunction. But why not lead off with that and let the challengers assume the political risk?
This trial balloon on an EO reinforces the impression that the Trump administration didn’t bother to think this through. All of this was unnecessary, as I argue in my column for The Week. Not only were the optics predictable, they were avoidable — and now it might be too late to fix it:
The real question is why the Trump administration didn’t press Congress for these changes before adopting the zero-tolerance policy. The outcomes were not just predictable, they were inevitable. It seems almost unbelievable that no one in the White House predicted what that would mean in political terms, especially in a media environment that has been so hostile to this administration. The reaction from the media and from Democratic opponents has been hyperbolic and ignorant of the complicated history of border enforcement, but it has also been effective in turning the electorate against Trump in the short run. It’s a gift to Democrats running for the House and Senate, whose fortunes had flagged since the first of the year.
In other words, all of this blowback could have been avoided with more careful preparation of the political battleground. That’s a tough lesson to receive just a few months ahead of a critical midterm election that might determine whether any of the president’s nominees get confirmed over the next two years. It’s not the first time that this lesson has been taught, either, and one has to wonder whether anyone will learn from it this time.
Presumably, Ryan’s bill will be similar to the proposal floated earlier this week by Ted Cruz. It would keep zero-tolerance enforcement in place, but add resources to allow for family detention, put in place new policies forbidding separation except in cases of demonstrable risk to the children, and double the number of immigration judges as a means to expedite the adjudication of these cases. A 14-day mandated cycle might be a big ask, but 21 or 28 days beats the 90-plus or worse that we’re already seeing. Families could get first priority as a means to step up the process, too.
Ted Cruz’ solution would fix the problem, but it’s one that the White House should have put in place before the crackdown in order to avoid handing their opponents a stick with which to beat them.
Having Ryan and Trump behind the proposal — whatever it is — all but guarantees its passage in the House. Will it get past the Senate, though, where Democrats can easily filibuster it? Chuck Schumer certainly recognizes the political value of the PR crisis facing the White House and the GOP from its lack of preparation, and he’s not going to be interested in helping them pull their chestnuts from the political fire. He’s already said that Trump should just rescind the zero-tolerance policy rather than fix the underlying problems:
“There are so many obstacles to legislation and when the president can do it with his own pen, it makes no sense,” Schumer told reporters. “Legislation is not the way to go here when it’s so easy for the president to sign it.”
Asked if that meant Democrats would not support a bill backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to keep immigrant families together while seeking asylum on the U.S. border, Schumer said they want to keep the focus on Trump.
“Again, the president can change it with his pen,” he said, warning that Republicans would likely try to add poison-pill provisions to any immigration bill that came to the floor. “Unacceptable additions have bogged down every piece of legislation we’ve done,” he said.
There will be a lot of pressure for Ryan and the House to come up with a “clean” fix to eliminate that argument, and not just from Democrats. Ted Cruz himself said passing broader immigration reform this close to an election is an idiocy that even he didn’t think he’d see in Washington:
Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz told the conservative online network CRTV that in conversations with House leadership, he’s practically dropped to his knees and begged them not to move forward.
“It is difficult to think of a path better designed to keep 3 to 5 million conservatives home in November than to pass a big amnesty plan right before the election,” he said. “Even in Washington, that’s colossally stupid, and saying that in Washington is a big deal.”
If the House produces a clean bill that addresses the family-separation issue as narrowly as Cruz’ proposal, it might have a chance in the Senate. Schumer would be taking a big risk in blocking a solution to the problem, which might well transfer the outrage from Trump and onto his caucus. There are enough red-state Democrats running in November to make a cloture vote interesting.