As President Donald Trump and top administration officials steadfastly defended the practice of separating children from adults who try to enter the U.S. illegally, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, on Monday accused the president of “racist” immigration policies and announced plans to visit the border this week.
The liberal Frankel, a frequent critic of the president whose district includes Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, said she hopes her visit with other members of Congress to centers housing minors in Texas will increase public pressure on Trump to “back off” the separation policy.
But Trump did not appear inclined to retreat on Monday, calling the family separations “so sad” but blaming the crisis on Democrats for not agreeing to a border wall and his call for other immigration changes.
“I say it’s, very strongly, the Democrats’ fault. They’re obstructing. They’re really obstructionists. And they are obstructing. The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump said before a White House meeting of the National Space Council.
The separations have increased since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “Zero-Tolerance Policy For Criminal Illegal Entry” in April. The order Sessions issued at the time instructed federal prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against people attempting to cross the border illegally. If those defendants are accompanied by minors, U.S. policy requires the children to be separated from them because the minors are not charged with crimes.
“Let’s be clear. If an American were to commit a crime anywhere in the United States, they would go to jail and they would be separated from their family. This is not a controversial idea,” Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters late Monday at a White House briefing.
Between April 19 and May 31, an Associated Press review of Homeland Security records found that 1,995 minors were separated from 1,940 adults at the border.
Prominent Florida Republicans have decried the separation of families, but echoed Trump in calling for congressional action rather than a unilateral presidential decree to stop it.
“Let me be clear — I do not favor separating families,” said Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. “Washington is to blame for this by being all talk and no action, and the solution is to secure the border. Anyone seeking to enter our country illegally needs to be sent back, with the exception of those who are truly seeking asylum from an oppressive regime.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said dividing families is not “acceptable,” but said only Congress can resolve the issue.
“The current situation at the border is the result of a choice between the only two options current law and federal court mandates allow: The Obama administration approach of releasing adults who illegally entered with children, which turned our border into a magnet for illegal immigration and traffickers looking to exploit vulnerable migrants; and the current approach of detaining parents, which divides families — something everyone says they want to avoid,” Rubio said.
“Neither is an acceptable approach,” Rubio continued. “Therefore, Congress must act to legally allow families to be held together pending their hearing, and to provide funding for the creation of family facilities and for expediting the process of adjudicating illegal entry and asylum. While this third option is not perfect, it is far better than incentivizing future illegal immigration or separating children from their parents.”
Before her appearance at the White House press briefing, Nielsen said in a speech to the National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans that the Trump administration is enforcing a law previous administrations failed to uphold.
“There are some who would like us to look the other way when dealing with families at the border and not enforce the law passed by Congress, including, unfortunately some members of Congress. Past administrations may have done so but we will not,” Nielsen said.
“We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family,” Nielsen said. “We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job. We have sworn to do this job. This administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.”
Frankel, speaking to reporters after a Democratic event to promote Medicaid expansion, said the family separations are part of a larger “racist” immigration policy by the president.
“He wants to completely revamp the immigration program in this country, so basically he wants to keep immigrants out of this country. It’s not just racist, it’s economically ridiculous because our country’s been built by immigrants and we need fresh immigrants coming in for our workforce,” Frankel said.
Frankel rejected the claim that Congress must act to stop the separations, saying Trump can stop them “in like two seconds” with a phone call to Sessions or Nielsen.
“Some of us, it’s mostly Democrats but there are probably some Republicans, are trying to put enough public exposure of this cruelty to get the president to back off,” said Frankel, who said her upcoming trip to Texas is part of that effort.
“I’m going to be going on Friday with a very large contingency of members of Congress,” Frankel said. “I know how I feel and I think a lot of Americans feel. We’re not going to be quiet about this until he changes his policy.”