Alaska senators veer apart on family separations

Photo of U.S. Capitol by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media

The separation of families detained at the southern border is dividing Republicans as they try to keep the scenes of despair from becoming a GOP public relations disaster, and Alaska’s two senators have staked out distant positions, at least for the short term.

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Almost everyone says it’s bad to take children from their parents, but that’s what’s happened to thousands of children as a result of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for unauthorized border crossers.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and 12 other Republicans signed a letter Tuesday asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to halt implementation of the zero tolerance policy to keep families together while Congress works out a solution. The letter was spearheaded by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. It calls the forced separations “inhumane.”

But Trump and other Republicans say Congress needs to pass a law to end the separations. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said that was the direction Senate Republicans took in their weekly policy gathering on Tuesday.

“Literally, almost the entire lunch that I just walked out of was all focused on what is the legislative solution,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan agrees families should be kept together.

“But you also have to address this other issue that’s related. It’s the ‘catch and release’ policy,” Sullivan said, referring to the previous policy of giving court dates to people claiming asylum and releasing them from federal detention.

Asked if the president should end family separations immediately, Sullivan said if there’s a way to move up the processing of families so their cases can be heard within 20 days, the administration should consider doing that. Sullivan said he’s interested in a bill by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. It would authorize new temporary family shelters and double the number of immigration judges, to about 750, to decide claims more quickly.

But President Trump on Tuesday rejected the idea of hiring massive numbers of new immigration judges.

“One of them says ‘we want to hire 5,000 more judges.’ I don’t want judges,” Trump said in a speech to small-business owners. “I want border security. I don’t want to try people. I don’t want people coming in.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., emerged from the weekly policy lunch saying he wants to pass a targeted bill within days that would keep families together. But that would mean leaving out the trickier issues, like an immigration overhaul and the president’s proposed border wall. And it’s not clear that’s a solution the president will accept.

All 47 Senate Democrats, plus two independents who caucus with them, are backing a narrow bill that would prohibit removing children unless they’re being abused or trafficked.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Representatives are drafting two separate bills to address broader immigration policy. One is put forth by the party’s hard-liners, the other is a compromise bill aimed at moderates. It’s not clear either has the votes to pass.

Trump said earlier in the day he would make changes to their proposals, but Tuesday evening he reportedly said he’d support either House bill.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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