The White House’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and resulting separations of undocumented parents and kids is exploding into the most emotive and politically unpredictable test yet of President Donald Trump’s effort to change the character of America.
As outrage grows over traumatic stories of families being torn apart, the big question this week in Washington is how long the controversial practice will be politically sustainable amid a wave of criticism.
A related issue is whether Trump will pay a political price for his false claim that the separations are the fault of Democrats, and not the result of his own administration’s change in how undocumented immigrants are treated.
Those questions are likely to be shaped by increasing calls for the administration to consider the morality of separating families. It’s not just the usual Democrats who are criticizing the administration – some prominent Republicans, including first lady Melania Trump and former first lady Laura Bush, religious leaders and influential figures in Trump’s conservative evangelical base are also speaking out.
“It’s an atrocious policy,” former White House communications director and Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci said on CNN’s “New Day” Monday. “It’s inhumane. It’s offensive to the average American.”
Still, the President continued to press Democrats to climb down on their opposition to sweeping changes he wants to make to the immigration system.
“Why don’t the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws? Where is the outcry for the killings and crime being caused by gangs and thugs, including MS-13, coming into our country illegally?” the President tweeted Monday morning.
Critics argue that the separations are cruel and un-American, using the issue to try to build a tide of distaste against the President and the GOP ahead of midterm elections.
A rare foray into politics by the former first lady significantly cranked up the political heat.
Bush said she appreciated the need to protect the border, but added, “This zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
“Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso,” Bush wrote. “These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
Current first lady Melania Trump also expressed concern about the situation, though she did not break with her husband’s position that only Congress can stop the separations.
“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” her communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN on Sunday.
Religious leaders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Franklin Graham, a key Trump ally, also faulted the morality of the separations last week.
Will Trump break with base?
Yet despite rising anger, it remains unclear whether the President is willing to risk the personal embarrassment, and potentially a backlash from his base, that a change of course might stir.
Trump’s uncanny connection with his loyal voters has been highlighted time and again over immigration and his core promise to introduce a much tougher policy – even if it has grave humanitarian consequences that critics and outsiders see as immoral.
It would not be surprising if the President feels that any shift in his line under rising media pressure and liberal fury makes it impossible for him to climb down.
It also remains to be see whether this issue – as heart-wrenching and poignant as it is – has the power to shatter entrenched political positions that have thwarted a decade-and-a-half of efforts by Congress to reform the immigration system.
Could it prompt Trump voters, for instance, to soften their belief that the border crossings are illegal and those who transgress get the treatment they deserve?
That seems unlikely. But the separations storm is injecting an unpredictable dimension to a critical week ahead in the immigration debate that sources tell CNN will include a meeting between Trump and GOP lawmakers on Tuesday.
The House of Representatives is meanwhile poised to consider a measure that could deal with the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients – undocumented migrants brought to the US as children – as well as funding for Trump’s border wall and a sweeping overhaul of the system of legal immigration.
Controversy over the separations dominated the political weekend.
Senate candidate and Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke on Sunday branded the separations “inhumane.”
“I’d like to say it’s un-American, but it’s happening right now in America. And it is on all of us, not just the Trump administration. This is on all of us,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
There were clear signs of discomfort at the White House.
Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “nobody likes this policy” and called on an unnamed official who told The Washington Post that Trump was using it as leverage to come forward and identify himself or herself.
But another key voice in Trump’s ear was his former political adviser Steve Bannon, who went on television, in the certain knowledge that the President would end up watching him, and made the case for staying the course despite rising criticism of the White House.
“It’s zero tolerance. I don’t think you have to justify it. We have a crisis on the southern border,” Bannon said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Bannon also warned that any bill that guaranteed a path to citizenship for DACA recipients was not just unacceptable but could so irk Trump’s base that Republicans could lose 50 seats in the House in November.
“All (Trump has) got to do is listen to his own inner voice,” Bannon said.
House battle awaits
The House could vote as early as this week on a plan that would address family separations although the legislation would do little to change the underlying practice that has been implemented under the Trump administration.
The compromise bill reverses a court settlement and would now allow children to be held with their parents indefinitely if they are in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.
But it doesn’t do anything to stop the Trump administration from continuing its current practice of prosecuting parents who cross the border without documentation in the criminal justice system. If the administration continues that practice, parents and children would still be separated.
“That’s an issue of great concern to me. And we’re still looking for ways to do more to keep families together in this legislation,” Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a key negotiator in the GOP’s compromise legislation, told reporters last week.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said last week that the administration’s practice could be “changed just like that” as she snapped her fingers.
The idea that Congress could fix the policy is strewn with obstacles.
To start with, Trump has kept lawmakers guessing about whether he would sign any bill. On Friday, he told Fox News that he had no intention of doing so. But roughly nine hours later – after a day of speculation and confusion – the White House issue a statement saying that Trump supported two Republican bills on the issue.
Three sources told CNN that Trump will meet House Republicans at the Capitol on Tuesday to discuss next steps on immigration, a gathering that could seal the fate of the House’s hard-fought compromise immigration bill.
Conservatives look to Trump for political cover
If Trump makes a strong endorsement, it could be enough to convince members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to back the bill. With Trump as a shield against conservative radio, the party base and hard-right immigration groups, conservatives will have a rationale to back a bill that some have expressed concerns would not go far enough to secure the border.
But, if he’s lukewarm or non-committal, the future of the House’s compromise immigration bill would likely be sunk.
“At the end of the day, his voice on immigration probably carries more weight in the Republican conference than any other voice. And so you have to pay attention to that,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters Friday.
Democrats have already said that they oppose the bill, meaning that it’s up to Republicans and them alone to get it across the finish line.
Senators are only just beginning to wrestle with the separations.
After spending a week already earlier in the year trying and failing to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, there is little appetite among Republican leaders for a new immigration debate before the midterms.
That could change, however, if the House passes a bill and pressure mounts from the White House for a Senate debate.