WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday he's not comfortable with a Trump administration policy that separates children and parents at the southern border, as House Republicans, under increasing pressure to address the humanitarian crisis, raced to finish a new immigration bill.
"We don't want kids to be separated from their parents," Ryan said, adding that the policy is being dictated by a court ruling that prevents children who enter the country illegally from being held in custody for long periods.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi pushed back on that assessment, saying that President Donald Trump could "stop the practice on a dime."
She called the Trump administration's separation policy "barbaric," adding: "It has to stop."
Republicans are under increasing pressure to respond to the humanitarian crisis at the border. News stories have highlighted that families are being separated as they enter the country illegally from Mexico. Many of those families are seeking asylum in the U.S.
The separation policy has become a political flashpoint at a time when House Republican leaders are trying to craft compromise legislation on immigration. The bill aims to address thorny issues that have bedeviled Congress for years.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., tweeted Thursday that he told a constituent that, "I am asking the White House to keep families together as much as we can."
Historically, immigrants without serious criminal records have been released from custody while they pursued asylum or refugee status. The Trump administration has moved to detain more people, including asylum seekers.
Under a new "zero-tolerance" policy from the administration, parents who are criminally charged with illegal entering the country are separated from their children while in custody. The children are usually released to other family members or foster care.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions insists the policy of separating families is necessary to deter illegal border-crossings. Authorities say the decision to send people to prisons is a temporary one forced by a shortage of beds.
Lawmakers are considering ways to prevent family separations, although it's unclear what approach the compromise legislation in the House will take.
One idea is to revisit longstanding rules under the so-called Flores agreement, a decades-old legal settlement that prevents children who enter the country illegally from being held in custody for long periods. Critics say the settlement leaves few options but to separate families as parents are being detained.
The White House wants to change the rules. But advocates for immigrants have warned against simply allowing longer detentions for the kids.
Pelosi said that if Republicans really wanted to tackle the issue of separating families, they could bring a bill to the House floor on an expedited basis. She said she sees no prospect for a legislative fix in the Republican-controlled Congress in an election year.
Ryan, R-Wis., said the House would vote next week on two competing immigration measures, but said he "won't guarantee passage."
One bill being pushed by GOP conservatives would give young "Dreamer" immigrants limited opportunities to remain in the U.S. while imposing tough restrictions on legal immigration and bolstering border security. That bill is not expected to pass.
GOP leaders, negotiating with quarreling moderates and conservatives, are still writing the second bill. Republicans said it would contain a way for Dreamers to qualify for permanent residence and potentially become citizens, while accepting conservatives' demands to finance Trump's proposed border wall with Mexico and restrictions on legal immigration.
With Republicans battling to keep their House majority in November's elections, merely staging the immigration votes, win or lose, achieves some political objectives. The plan helped party leaders block unhappy moderates trying to force the House to consider immigration bills considered too liberal by many Republicans, and will let lawmakers assert that they moved to address the issue.
Ryan said Trump backs the GOP efforts to find a compromise.