Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen met with House Republicans Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol to answer questions about the president’s new executive order ending immigrant family separation while also urging members to pass a legislative fix.
The president signed an executive order directing DHS to keep families together on Wednesday but Congress is still working through multiple bills aimed at a more long-term fix to the current immigration crisis.
Pressed on whether her recent comments that the president can’t solve the immigration problem with executive action, Nielsen emphasized that Congress must act to secure the border and codify law to keep immigrant families together to guard against potential legal rulings.
“They need to change the laws so I have the authority to secure the border for the American people,” she said. “We have court cases, right, that prohibit us from keeping families together. So only Congress can do that.”
But a Congressional fix may be easier said than done, as both chambers faced setbacks in their efforts to reach a compromise on Wednesday ahead of an expected votes on Thursday.
Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, was observed in a heated discussion with Speaker Paul Ryan on the House floor. Meadows cautioned that the bill created through a compromise among Republicans was not yet ready for a vote in its current form.
"The compromise bill is not ready for prime time and hopefully we'll be able to make it ready for prime time," he said.
"I was passionate, I was not yelling," Meadows said of his apparent disagreement with Ryan. “There are things that were supposed to be in the compromise bill that are not in the compromise bill that we had all agreed to.”
"I was told there were two things in there, that were not in there," he said of the bill, which he finished reading Wednesday. Meadows would not disclose whether he would oppose the measures as they’re currently crafted.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Republican who has negotiated for weeks with GOP leaders to craft compromise legislation, said the president’s executive order is “good news.” Curbelo said that Nielsen pledged to work to reunite children currently separated from their parents “as soon as possible.”
But Curbelo also accused some Republicans of working to "blow up" the GOP compromise bill.
"I don't think that anyone thought we would get this far and apparently that's causing some anxiety," he said. "We're also not going to let people step all over us and try to rearrange what was agreed to here at the eleventh hour.”
On the Senate side Wednesday evening a bipartisan group of about a dozen senators met in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., to start talking about possible longer-term legislative solutions to address the issues surrounding families being separated on the U.S. border.
As they left the meeting, it was clear that even among the most willing of senators to work together, political divisions on resolving this issue in the long term run deep and wouldn't be solved quickly or easily.
Most of the lawmakers who joined Collins said they agreed that any bill should only deal with this narrow issue and not broader problems related to immigration like DACA. But all other aspects of a more permanent deal broke down along party lines.
“Indefinite family detention is not a solution to the problem. There is no way that we can in my mind indefinitely detain families as they go through their asylum process,” Sen Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said.
But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said it would not work to keep families out of detention either.
“The solution that some are pushing is to simply release illegal aliens who are detained. Simply return to catch-and-release. That's a mistake. That doesn't work,” Cruz said.
While all participants in the meeting also agreed that their meeting was just the start of what is likely to be a series of long discussions and possible congressional hearings, the consensus among Democrats and Republicans was that beyond ending family separation, there was little consensus on which to build.