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US Congress sets immigration vote amid furor over family separations

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order ending a policy of separating families caught crossing the US-Mexico border illegally
AFP

Washington (AFP) – US lawmakers were poised to vote Thursday on long-term Republican-sponsored fixes to immigration amid a firestorm over family separations on the US-Mexico border.

But Republicans were divided over the two bills up for a vote in the House of Representatives, and Democrats signalled their opposition, making for a day of legislative drama.

The votes come a day after US President Donald Trump, in a stunning about-face, ordered an end to the family separations at the border.

Images and recordings of wailing children detained in cage-like enclosures has ignited global outrage, forcing the legislative action on an immigration system in disarray.

Despite Trump’s order there was no immediate plan in place to reunite the more than 2,300 children already separated from their families.

“Congress has the authority and the responsibility to make the law of the land and to fix the immigration system,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a security forum on Capitol Hill. 

“We need Congress to act.”

Two measures are before the House of Representatives — a conservative bill and a more moderate “compromise,” which the White House and leadership in the Republican-controlled Congress has been urging rank-and-file members to support.

Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi said her caucus was opposed to both bills, and it was unclear if there was sufficient Republican support for the compromise measure.

Trump himself raised doubts before the votes, seeming to signal that conservatives need not cast tough votes on the compromise while shifting the blame for failure to Democrats.

“What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate, and the Dems are only looking to Obstruct,” Trump tweeted.

The compromise bill, in addition to ending family separations, addresses Trump’s goals of boosting border security including funding for his wall, limiting so-called “chain migration,” ending the visa lottery program and providing legal protections for young immigrants in the Obama-era DACA program who were brought to the country illegally as children.

“It does not guarantee citizenship, but it does provide for a merit-based visa that the DACA population could apply for,” congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of House GOP leadership, told Fox News.

– New legal battles –

Trump has accused rival Democrats of causing the problems at the border, telling supporters that Democrats put “illegal immigrants before they put American citizens.”

For weeks, Trump had insisted he was bound by law to split children from their parents and that only Congress could resolve the problem — before he radically shifted gears.

Trump’s order suggests the government intends to hold the families indefinitely by challenging a 1997 court ruling known as the Flores Settlement, which places a 20-day limit on how long children, alone or with their parents, can be detained.

Trump’s executive order would keep families together but in custody indefinitely while the parents are prosecuted for entering the country illegally.

That move could lead to new legal battles for the administration.

Trump said there was a need to sustain his “zero tolerance” policy to prevent crime.

“We still have to maintain toughness, or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for and we don’t want,” he said.

After a downturn last year, the flow of migrants from Central America and Mexico has surged since October.

From March to May this year, more than 50,000 people a month were apprehended for illegally crossing the border from Mexico. 

Nearly all of the arriving families, and many others, have officially requested asylum, citing the high levels of violence in their home countries.

The “zero tolerance” policy, including mandatory separation of children from adults as a deterrent, was announced May 7.

Gene Hamilton, a senior Justice Department official, said the executive order was a “stopgap” move and that Congress needs to pass new legislation to give the president more powers to fight illegal immigration.

Current laws, he argued, simply encouraged people to enter the country with their children, expecting to be caught and then released into US society.

Democrats have warned that any order to undermine the critical Flores protections would be immediately challenged in court.

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