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House Considers 2 Immigration Bills As Southern Border Crisis Persists

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are learning more about the children who are being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Associated Press reports that the Trump administration has been sending babies and toddlers to at least three shelters that the government is calling tender age facilities in South Texas. According to the AP, the government also plans to open a fourth shelter in Houston, even though city officials there have denounced that move. Meanwhile, President Trump keeps insisting, falsely, that the only way to stop family separations is for Congress to change the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: All we need is good legislation, and we can have it taken care of. And we have to get the Democrats to go ahead and work with us.

MARTIN: President Trump met with House Republicans yesterday at the Capitol to talk about an immigration deal, but it left many Republicans feeling confused about what bill could actually pass. We are joined now by Republican Congressman Warren Davidson. He was in that meeting with the president yesterday.

Thanks so much for coming in, Congressman.

WARREN DAVIDSON: Thanks for talking with me today.

MARTIN: The images and sounds from these scenes have been harrowing. The audio of these children crying, we have heard that played over the past couple of days. It's tough to listen to. What have you been hearing from your constituents?

DAVIDSON: It's heart-wrenching. I haven't talked to anyone across the ideological spectrum that doesn't have a lot of sympathy for what's going on at the border and a lot of concern. It's been hard to find facts, frankly. A lot of people have politicized this and just tapped into the raw emotion of it. And so I've been encouraged over the past few days because it's more fact-based in some of the reporting.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the facts that you're hoping to clear up. I mean, what did you want to hear from the president yesterday?

DAVIDSON: Well, specific to immigration and - you know, first and foremost, I was encouraged by the commitment that he's still going to continue to - border security is national security. The easiest solution, frankly, and the solution the Ninth Circuit in their case in 1997 points toward, is just don't enforce the border. Just don't detain anyone because that decision basically made it illegal to detain children for longer than 20 days, period.

MARTIN: This is the so-called Flores Agreement that has become this political football in this debate. But we have to point out that there is broad discretion within that law, and there is nothing about it that requires the federal government to separate parents from children.

DAVIDSON: No. There is nothing about it, except that just like in the U.S., for U.S. citizens when we arrest adults, we have foster care. I mean, frankly, when I think about the kids at the border, the biggest thing I think about is this 9-year-old boy that was in a foster program being - going through therapy because his mom was a heroin addict. So what's going on here in America is Mom's in jail. She's trafficking her 9-year-old son to get money for heroin. This happens in America. It's - I mean, it was the most emotional meeting I've had. And how does this stuff come into our country? Over 80 percent of it's coming across our Southern border. We can't make securing the border optional somehow. However, we have to have a better solution today. So to your point, the president does have wide discretion. This is an emergency. It's a humanitarian crisis.

MARTIN: So then how does Congress act? There are two bills in the House right now that are supposed to address the issue of family separation. Do you have clarity on which one can pass?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I don't think either of them can pass right now. I'm hopeful that - so both of them are compromise bills. The Goodlatte original bill is a compromise. You have Raul Labrador from the conservative Freedom Caucus, and Martha McSally, who's a much more moderate member from Arizona - are on the compromise on Goodlatte. That won't pass. It is actually much more clear on security. And then the compromise that's most recently is a compromise with a compromise - strips many of the enforcement mechanisms out and does provide a better path on DACA. They both work to address the same certainty for how we deal with kids at the border.

MARTIN: But let me ask you this. If this is so urgent, if your constituents are telling you, we don't like the sound of babies crying separated from their parents at the border; we cannot tolerate what is essentially human rights abuse of separating these parents from their babies; why not separate that? Why not - why doesn't Congress craft a bill that would end family separations while you work out the larger immigration issues?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. Fair point. And I think Ted Cruz has done just that. We're looking at his bill, and it puts it on a 14-day timeline. It keeps families together. But you've already got progressive groups reacting to that by basically saying, OK, so now we're going to have families in gulags. So there's no dialogue here.

MARTIN: There's an alternative, though. You can - as has happened before this policy change took effect, you can put ankle bracelets on these parents and keep track of them until they have to come to court.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. Before I was elected, I thought the term catch and release meant what it was designed to make people think it means, which is, you catch people at the border, and then you send them out of the country together. It means the exact opposite. You catch them at the border, you put them into the country. That's not securing the border. It still gives people a large inducement to come into the country. It doesn't deal with the security and, frankly, it's an inducement that traps more people in another generation in this broken system.

MARTIN: All right. We're going to have to leave it there - clearly much more to debate. Congressman Warren Davidson, thanks for coming in this morning.

DAVIDSON: Thanks for talking with me today.

MARTIN: All right. I am joined in the studio by NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, who was listening into that conversation.

Kelsey, we heard the congressman there say that he doesn't believe either of the House immigration bills has a chance of passing. Is that what you're hearing?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Yeah, that sounds pretty much right at this point. There were a number of Republicans who were hoping that the president would endorse something specific so that the leadership could say, the president will back you up if you vote for this one bill. That didn't happen last night, and so a lot of members feel like they don't have the political cover or the expectation that the president will back them up if they take a politically risky vote and vote for something like the compromise bill.

MARTIN: So then what does that mean for the issue of this family separations? I mean, I asked the congressman whether or not there was a movement to pass some kind of discrete, separate bill that would address this, and he didn't exactly answer the question.

SNELL: He didn't because there are a number of Republicans, including the House leaders, who don't want to talk about a discrete option until this broader bill has been either passed or it has failed, though there are many people, including many in the Senate, who want to pass a discrete bill now. I talked to Senator John Kennedy from Louisiana yesterday, and here's what he said.

JOHN KENNEDY: The problem is obvious. The solution, to me, is also obvious. You can believe in the rule of law and prosecute people for breaking it without taking their children away. You can do both.

SNELL: You can hear there that he is very, very upset, and that is fairly common among many of the Republicans I spoke with.

MARTIN: Although he's suggesting you can do both. The president insists that it's one or the other, and he has essentially admitted that this is about leverage; this is about trying to get Democrats to sign on to his larger immigration priorities.

SNELL: Yeah. And a lot of Republicans that I speak to privately say that they understand that this may be a situation where they need to be able to overcome a presidential veto if they want to pass a discrete bill that handles just family separation.

MARTIN: All right - NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Thanks.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.