Politics & Government

Disagreements on child detentions could sink hopes for streamlined immigration courts

Republican and Democratic senators struggling to find some sort of compromise to help migrant children agree on a lot of points.

They’re willing to nearly double the number of immigration judges to 700. Senators would make it easier for immigrants to get legal help. And they’re okay with minimum standards for care in detention centers.

But none of that is going to be debated at the Capitol, let alone become law. Despite weeks of closed-door talks by a group of four senators, two from each party, there’s little if any prospect for a deal anytime soon.

That’s because, as Congress leaves for its summer recess, it leaves behind major disagreements over whether there should be limits on how long immigrant children can be held.

While both sides want families to be together, Democrats favor solutions that don’t involve detention, or only short-term detention, while Republicans equate allowing parents to go free with their children before court dates to catch and release.

It’s been more than a month since that group of senators started meeting to discuss changing those laws, after an uproar over the Trump administration’s separating thousands of migrant children from their parents.

But no bill language has even surfaced.

When asked about the next meeting, one of the senators involved in talks about the law, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, would only say Wednesday the group spoke all the time.

Those senators, who also include Dianne Feinstein, D-California, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, all used the same phrase when asked about progress on a bill: They’re “optimistic” that they’ll come to an agreement that would prevent immigrant children from being separated from their parents in the future.

They’re among the few who feel that way.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said “Sadly, no,” when asked if he thought his colleagues would be able to find a solution. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, said he was “not optimistic” that anything introduced would become law, even if the group could manage to come to a final agreement.

And there’s been no movement in the House, which is not scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 4. The Senate is set to return August 14.

“I don’t think the other side is particularly serious about getting a solution, I’m sorry to say,” Cornyn said. “There is an answer there, which is the Tillis-Cruz bill, but nobody is willing to say yes, and their only alternative proposal is to refuse to enforce the law.”

Feinstein has introduced a different bill that would mandate families be kept together without changing the existing limits on child detention, which says they can only be held in certain conditions for no more than 20 days.

It’s co-sponsored by every Senate Democrat.

A Tillis-Cruz bill would clarify that children should be held with their families and eliminate the 20-day limit on child detention. It would create more immigration judgeships, which the sponsors estimate would end detentions after 40 to 60 days.

Neither bill is supported by any members of the other party, and with 51 Republicans in the Senate it would need support from members of both parties to pass, since 60 votes are needed to limit debate.

Feinstein insisted in a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday she’d keep trying for a compromise, and said President Donald Trump was her motivation to keep working on the compromise.

“Unfortunately, despite the public outcry and the rebuke by the courts, the administration has demonstrated it can’t be trusted to put the welfare of children above its own hard-lined views on immigration,” Feinstein said. “Therefore, we, the Congress, have a constitutional and a moral obligation to intervene.”

The issue of how law enforcement treats immigrant children came under scrutiny due to the “zero tolerance” Trump administration policy, which charged every adult crossing the border outside ports of entry with a crime.

Since current law does not allow children to be detained in the same way as adults, putting adults in custody necessitated separation from their children.

Following public outcry and court rulings, the administration has reportedly stopped enforcing the zero tolerance policy. Department of Justice spokesman Devin O’Malley declined comment Wednesday when asked if the zero tolerance policy could return.

At a detention facility in Tornillo, TX, immigrant children are seen eating, coloring and playing soccer in this video from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released on June 21, 2018. (Video contains no audio)

Further reinforcing the perceived gulf between the negotiating senators, Tillis and Feinstein did not agree on what was holding up negotiations. Tillis insisted “the only sticking point” was the Flores settlement, a court ruling from years ago that says children cannot be detained for more than 20 days. If that’s not changed, officials cannot guarantee that children will be held with parents, he said.

“After the 20-day clock, without a treatment, you’re going to be forced to separate the family or release everybody,” Tillis told McClatchy. “And we don’t think that’s a good solution.”

Feinstein denied that the length of detainment point was a disagreement, saying there were a few issues to resolve, but declined to specify what they were.

The length of detainment is “determined by the Flores settlement, so that’s what prevails and to my knowledge there is no effort to change it,” Feinstein told McClatchy.

Cruz has also declined to comment on the holdup, saying he didn’t want to negotiate through the press.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby