WASHINGTON – In April, the Trump administration announced its plan to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy for migrants who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, a tactic by which law enforcement officials would separate parents from children, at least partially in the hopes of deterring future migration. But it wasn’t until last week that the issue reached a boiling point. Searing stories and images of mothers separated from infants – as well as heart-wrenching audio of young children in a U.S. detention center yelling “Mama!” and “Papi!” – dominated the news in a way few, if any, other stories have since Donald Trump took office.
The outpouring of shock and anger at the zero-tolerance policy – almost 2,000 children were separated from their parents over six weeks in April and May – seemed to take Trump and his aides by surprise. On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order that he says is meant to keep immigrant families together. But the president has repeatedly insisted that it’s up to Congress to come up with a real fix for a problem that his administration created.
Thanks to Trump’s own actions, no solution appears to be coming from House and Senate Republicans. A hardline immigration bill was defeated last week, and Speaker Paul Ryan postponed a vote on a more moderate bill because he didn’t have the votes. Over the past week, Rolling Stone spoke to numerous Republican lawmakers across the ideological spectrum, and the divide between members pleased with Trump and those frustrated by him revealed just how fractured Trump’s party is on immigration.
“I think that we look at him as our father – it is the family,” says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). “We like him. With all of his personality displays that make people mad at him on the outside, the Republicans are beginning to really like him for all of that.”
House Republicans were looking to their patriarch for direction when Trump spoke to the full Republican conference last week. But Trump gave a meandering speech that left many in his own party scratching their heads, as he seemed to endorse both an ultra-conservative immigration bill and a somewhat more moderate counterpart that includes a path to citizenship for Dreamers as well $25 billion for Trump’s supposed border wall.
“I think he’s bouncing around,” Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), who is leaving Congress at the end of his term, told Rolling Stone after the meeting. “I was left with the impression that he wasn’t as focused on this [as] a lot of us are.”
It’s been reported that Trump even told some lawmakers he’s willing to shut down the government this fall if Congress doesn’t pay for his long-talked-about Mexican border wall. And many House Republicans remain nervous about sticking their necks out for Trump again after voting for an Obamacare repeal-and-replace measure that the president later called “mean.”
“He’s been very clear, and it’s a shame because the Dreamer issue should not be part of the wall discussion and I think that he will get the wall funding,” says retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who does not support funding for the wall. “It saddens me deeply to see these two issues intertwined because the Dreamers didn’t hop over a fence. That’s a totally different issue. It’s legislative blackmail.”
For now, there doesn’t seem to be a path forward for either House immigration bill in the Senate where there are currently only 51 Republicans and 60 votes are needed to pass legislation.
“I think the concern that a lot of people have is, ‘What will happen if this gets held up?’ – that it only makes it out of the House and doesn’t make it through the Senate,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, told reporters at the Capitol last week.
Yet for the pro-Trump faction of the GOP, immigration is the issue they got elected on. No matter the hesitation in the caucus or the public outcry to pass a more humane version of immigration reform, they intend to push for a bill that delivers on their promises to the Trump-loving Republican base.
Rep. Lou Barletta, who is also running for Senate in the battleground state of Pennsylvania this year, says: “I can’t come here after a long battle with this issue – trying to stop illegal immigration – and then vote for amnesty.”