The separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border is spiraling into a national crisis of policy and conscience, and the leading voices of the Republican Party are mute.
Rolling Stone on Monday reached out to 11 prominent GOP lawmakers in Congress who had not yet condemned the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” directive toward undocumented immigrants that has yielded this horrific outcome. The lawmakers on that list include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).
Their response? Silence.
Not a single Republican currently in Congress contacted by Rolling Stone responded to questions about their position on the practice of dividing immigrant families, an indication of just how intractable the issue of immigration has become for the party. Earlier this year, Republicans in the Senate failed to reach a consensus about how to treat the beneficiaries of an Obama-era policy – DACA – for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, triggering a brief government shutdown. Even more embarrassing for the party, in May, House Republicans’ failed to pass the farm bill, despite holding a large majority in the chamber. The legislation tanked when 30 members on the party’s far-right fringe refused to support the bill championed by House Speaker Paul Ryan unless he agreed to hold a vote on a separate and controversial immigration measure first.
Of the 11 Republican lawmakers contacted for this story, only Rick Scott, the sitting governor of Florida, was willing to take a stand on family separation. Scott, who is running for Senate this year, placed blame not on the Trump administration, which has ordered the practice, but on Congressional dysfunction.
“What the country is witnessing right now is the byproduct of the many years of bipartisan inaction and failure from our federal government,” Scott said in a statement. “They have failed to secure our borders, which has resulted in this chaos. Let me be clear – I do not favor separating families.”
Families, Scott said, should be deported as a unit. “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.”
The relative silence on the part of Republican leaders has hardly gone unnoticed. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who has led the charge to draw attention to the administration’s policy, told CBS that his Republican counterparts have privately called it a “terrible policy” but will only “call up and whisper to the administration. They won’t say that publicly.”
Pressure has been steadily building on lawmakers of both parties to speak out. Harrowing stories and images of children taken from their parents and put in cages made of chain-link fences have forced a national debate about the administration’s policy, which was announced in April and squarely aimed at deterring asylum-seekers from coming to the United States.
The backlash to the administration’s decision to enforce existing immigration law to the point of breaking up families – a move not taken by previous presidents – has come swiftly and from all sides. Democrats have condemned the policy and introduced legislation to stop the Department of Homeland Security from separating parents and children seeking asylum. Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader, called the policy “disgraceful” and former Fox host Bill O’Reilly said the administration “will not win on this one and it should reverse course today.” Former CIA Director Michael Hayden tweeted the message “Other governments have separated mothers and children” with a photo of a Nazi concentration camp.
On Father’s Day, former First Lady Laura Bush condemned the policy in a Washington Post op-ed, calling it “cruel” and “immoral.” First Lady Melania Trump echoed those sentiments in a statement of her own the same day, saying she “hates” to see children separated from their families but attributing these separations to “both sides” breakdown, not as the direct result of a directive by her husband’s administration.
Trump, whose administration instituted the policy, has blamed the situation on Democrats’ refusal to “give us the votes” to codify some of his advisers’ harsher immigration proposals. On Monday, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and Kirstjen Nielsen, his Homeland Security secretary, defended it. Sessions insisted undocumented immigrants were attempting to exploit a “loophole” by crossing with children; DHS, Nielsen said, would “not apologize for doing our job.”
In recent days, a handful of moderate Republicans have belatedly chimed in. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said on Sunday that the administration’s policy “doesn’t act as deterrent” and “is inconsistent with our American values.” Last week, Speaker Paul Ryan said: “We don’t want kids to be separated from their parents.” Legislation, he added, would be needed to fix the problem. Ryan gave no indication how or when that legislation would get a vote.