Republicans crafting an immigration bill want to overturn a contentious component of President Donald Trump's border enforcement strategy: Separating parents and children who cross the border together.
Children who cross the border with their parents can only be released back to their parents, even if that would mean putting the family in a detention facility, under immigration legislation being drafted by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Its text, released Thursday, would require that officials place children who crossed the border with a parent or legal guardian only be placed with that parent or guardian, not any other relatives or foster settings.
"In no circumstances shall an alien minor who is not an unaccompanied alien child be released by the Secretary of Homeland Security other than to a parent or legal guardian," the text reads.
The 293-page bill, a compromise between Republicans looking to reform immigration law and the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is likely to face a House vote next week. It's possible the bill will be amended before a vote next week.
Under the recently announced zero-tolerance policy of President Donald Trump's administration, children and parents (or legal guardians) who cross the border together are separated. That's because the adult is at least temporarily placed in a detention facility, while current law says children have to be placed in the "least restrictive" setting.
The zero-tolerance policy, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April, charges all adults who cross the border unlawfully with a crime, even if they're seeking asylum.
The policy has gained widespread attention in recent days with dozens of demonstrations planned around the country to protest separating children and their parents.
Multiple reports in recent days described situations where parents are told by immigration agents that their children were being taken for a bath only to later find out they had been taken away indefinitely. McClatchy reported Tuesday that the federal government is trying to construct tent cities on military bases in Texas to temporarily house unaccompanied children.
The Department of Homeland Security currently takes children who cross the border with their parents illegally to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses children temporarily and evaluates where to place them long-term.
That could be with the parent, if they are in a setting that qualifies under the "least restrictive" setting standard, or to another family member or a foster home. The new policy cuts out the Department of Health and Human Services' role completely.
Democrats could be supportive of the new policy. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has lead efforts on the humane treatment of immigrant children in the past, said she could support the policy, though she would need to review the bill text to be sure.
“It sounds like I would (support it),” she said. “I’m very opposed to the separation of children (from their parents).”
The Trump administration has called for an end to "loopholes" in immigration laws pertaining to children , saying the current system amounts to "catch and release." Democrats have placed blame on the zero tolerance policy, saying it has skyrocketed the amount of children who are treated as unaccompanied at the border.
Sessions defended current policy during a speech on Thursday in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"Having children does not give you immunity from arrest and prosecution," Sessions said. "However, we're not sending children to jail and law requires that children who cannot be with their parents be placed within the custody of HHS within 72 hours, something entirely different than the criminal justice system."
Sessions said the U.S. government spends $1 billion a year taking care of children who are unaccompanied or separated from their parents.
"Policies that can result in the separation of families are not unusual or unjustified," Sessions said, adding that most families are separated for "only a week or two or three."
Sessions said the policy of separating children from their parents as they are prosecuted is not "that we want to be mean to children" but that not detaining families because they brought children would be further incentive for unlawful immigration.
"No one should subject their child to such a dangerous journey," Sessions said.
McClatchy reporter Christine Condon contributed to this report.