Trump charts immigration strategy with House GOP amid family separation uproar

President Donald Trump met with House Republicans at the Capitol Tuesday.

June 19, 2018, 9:55 PM

House Republicans leaving a meeting on with President Donald Trump Tuesday evening said he endorsed the more moderate of two immigration bills being voted on Thursday, although the White House was less definitive in its characterization of Trump’s support.

The president attended the strategy session with House Republicans as lawmakers struggle to respond to the national uproar over the administration's policy causing family separations at the border.

Trump told the group that he had seen images associated with family separations and told Republicans that they needed to "take care" of it in legislation, according to a source in the room. Ivanka Trump showed her father images of the detained children and encouraged him to end the policy, saying the photos were painful to see.

“He endorsed both House immigration bills that build the wall, close legal loopholes, cancel the visa lottery, curb chain migration, and solve the border crisis and family separation issue by allowing for family detention and removal. He told the members, ‘I’m with you 100%,” White House deputy spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement following the meeting.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump, accompanied by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, arrive for a meeting with Republican members of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, on June 19, 2018.
President Donald Trump, accompanied by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, arrive for a meeting with Republican members of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, on June 19, 2018.
Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

But House Republicans leaving the meeting said they came away thinking he was endorsing a compromise bill, crafted by leadership in consultation with both moderate and conservative members of the House Republican conference.

“The compromise bill is what I gathered. He didn't specify which bill but it was the contours that were laid out in the compromise bill,” Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., told reporters after the meeting.

Republican leadership crafted the compromise bill to placate moderates who threatened to force a vote on legal status for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action under President Obama.

The measure would provide $25 billion in border wall funding, eliminate several visa programs while restructuring others, and provide a pathway for six-year "indefinitely renewable" legal status for "Dreamers" who could later apply for citizenship. It is also expected to include a provision to prevent the government from separating young children from parents and guardians while in government custody.

A more conservative alternative to the compromise bill, written by McCaul and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, the Securing America’s Future Act, provides a pathway to legal status for Dreamers while limiting legal immigration levels. It isn't expected to pass the House with Republican votes given Democrats' opposition, as well as concerns from some moderates.

Even if Trump didn’t specify which of the two bills he preferred, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., indicated that the president endorsed the policies that comprise the more moderate bill.

“President Trump did a great job of explaining to our conference why he wants to see a bill get through the House that actually addresses the problem of border security, making sure the money's there to build the wall, making sure that parents are reunited with families, making sure that we solve the DACA problem, closing interior loopholes, ending catch and release,” Scalise said.

The president declined to answer shouted questions about the new practice as he entered and exited the Capitol but did make a statement about the immigration system in general.

"The system has been broken for many years, the immigration system. It's been a really bad, bad system, probably the worst anywhere in the world. We're going to try to see if we can fix it," he said as he arrived at House Speaker Paul Ryan's office.

The House is slated to vote on both the compromise bill and the Goodlatte/McCaul bill Thursday.

PHOTO: People protest against the policy of separating immigrant families suspected of illegal entry, in El Paso, Texas, June 19, 2018.
People protest against the policy of separating immigrant families suspected of illegal entry, in El Paso, Texas, June 19, 2018.
Mike Blake/Reuters

The more conservative bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to house families together while parents go through criminal proceedings for the misdemeanor of first-time illegal border crossing - a change from current practice requiring the Department of Justice to take criminal custody during criminal proceedings, thus leading to family separation.

The proposal would also eliminate the 20-day cap on DHS administrative custody for accompanied children, so families would be kept together in the custody of DHS throughout criminal proceedings. It also authorizes up to $7 billion for family residential centers, ensuring DHS has access to funds to house more families.

In the cases of repeat offenders or other serious criminals, children would be placed in the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The legislation is not finalized but an updated version was expected to have been circulated among lawmakers in advance of the conference meeting with the president.

Both bills have yet to be introduced, meaning they could still be tweaked after the meeting with Trump.

Republican leaders were gauging support for the compromise bill, in a process known as whipping the vote, following their meeting with the president.

While the political and policy conversation has revolved around the issue of family separation in recent days, lawmakers exiting the meeting said the president did not focus on the new practice of removing children from the custody of their parents while the parents await prosecution.

“It was not a situation where there was a lot of focus on the separate family separation issue,” Costello said.

In fact, some sources indicated it was more of Trump’s typical stream-of-consciousness style addresses, in which he touched on issues as varied as trade, North Korea, and the recent Republican congressional primary in South Carolina in which Republican Mark Sanford was ousted.

One source said he looked around the room to see if Sanford was there, saying he wanted to congratulate him on his race. Then he pointed out that Sanford had said “nasty things about him.”

Trump’s supportive remarks about the GOP compromise bill cap off a half-week of confusing, contradictory statements. Earlier Tuesday, Trump announced that he would make his own changes to the House immigration bill after he reviews the emerging text. His surprise comments come after a whirlwind Friday when Trump told reporters he wouldn't support the GOP compromise bill, only to be contradicted by the White House in a statement nine hours later pledging support for either option.

“We have a House that's getting ready to finalize an immigration package that they're going to brief me on later and then I'm going to make changes to,” Trump told the National Federation of Independent Businesses on Tuesday. “We have one chance to get it right.”

Trump has also maintained he does not have the power to take executive action and has repeatedly put the onus on Congress to fix the problem by creating legal authority he says the administration lacks to detain and properly remove families together as a unit.

#CHANGETHELAWS Now is the best opportunity ever for Congress to change the ridiculous and obsolete laws on immigration. Get it done, always keeping in mind that we must have strong border security.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2018
PHOTO: Immigrant children are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, June 18, 2018.
Immigrant children are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, June 18, 2018.
Mike Blake/Reuters

As the issue draws continued disgust from Democrats and civil rights activists, the uncertainty underscores the difficulty Republican leaders face, particularly as the debate takes them off-message from their election-year agenda focusing on the economy.

Rev. Al Sharpton joined a group of high-profile civil rights activists Tuesday on Capitol Hill to decry the Trump administration’s practice of separating illegal immigrant children from their parents at the southern border.

“There is nothing moral or even acceptable of hearing children crying and screaming for their daddies and their mommies,” Sharpton cried, denouncing Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a “Sunday school teacher” after he cited scripture last week defending the administration’s actions.

Sharpton also charged that the administration’s policy is racist, because the Trump administration would not implement the policy at the northern border with Canada against “white children.”

“There is the inference here that because these are children of color that there's a different policy for them and that [President Trump] is playing hardball with the futures of these young people but also with the image of the United States worldwide,” Sharpton contended. “This bigoted and insensitive policy should end today.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, appealed to Trump to take executive action, given the president has been eager to address other political controversies through executive order.

“He can do it. Do not be fooled by arguments that the law prevents the administration from taking action. For the last two years we have watched President Trump enjoy with relish affixing his signature to any number of executive orders, beginning with the Muslim ban. He has taken delight in acting unilaterally,” Ifill said. “He has said that he, and he alone, can solve the nation's immigration problems and yet when we ask him to step forward and take executive action as the leader of this country to protect country who are screaming for their parents, to remove America from this cloud of immorality, this embarrassment of the lack of humanity, suddenly he is unable to act?”

Responding to the backlash against the family separation policy, some Republicans have introduced narrow, stand-alone legislation meant to address the family separation policy.

Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, has also floated an additional proposal that would remove the family separation dilemma from broader immigration reform proposals. His pitch would enact tougher scrutiny to asylum seekers while allowing children to be detained with their parents – rather than the administration’s current practice to hold them in separate detention facilities.

House Minority Nancy Pelosi joined several Democratic lawmakers on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego on Monday, calling the administration’s policy “barbaric” while demanding Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen resign.

“This is not an immigration issue, this is a humanitarian issue. It’s about the children.” Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “We can have debates and the policy and the ‘this’ or the ‘that,’ which is wrong. But, the fundamental unifying principle for our country is this is about family and they cannot undermine the family as the American way and expect that it will have any regard for how we regard them. So, this is very, for us, it’s not political. It’s very prayerful as a matter of fact, but we do know that the answer lies with the stroke of a pen from the President of the United States.”

Democrats also assert that the GOP remedies allow indefinite detention of families.

All 49 Senate Democrats have signed onto Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill, the Keep Families Together Act, which prohibits officials from removing a child under the age of 18 from their parent or legal guardian at or near a port of entry within 100 miles of the border. No Republicans have cosponsored the legislation although one moderate House Republican, Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, tweeted support for her effort. House Democrats are working on a bill that could become a companion bill to Feinstein’s.

ABC News' Ben Siegel contributed to this report.

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