WASHINGTON — Alaska's U.S. senators say they favor keeping families together at the U.S.-Mexico border and crafting federal legislation to manage an influx of immigrant families seeking asylum.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that would stop the separation of children from their parents at the border, a process that escalated with a recently instituted "zero tolerance" policy for asylum seekers who enter the United States at unsanctioned places along the southern border.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was sitting at a table with Trump at the White House for a meeting on trade when the president announced to media in the room that he would sign the order.
"We're looking to keep families together. Very important. … We are also going to count on Congress, obviously, but we are signing an executive order in a little while," Trump told reporters.
The memorandum Trump later signed orders a halt to the separation of children and parents at the border and instead orders that they be detained together. It also called on Congress to act.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she was glad to see the order and the president clarifying that "he has the authority to end the unconscionable policy that was separating families." What must come next is for the "order to translate into the immediate halt of children being separated from their parents, and for those that have been separated to be reunited as soon as possible," she said in an emailed statement Wednesday night.
But there are still major underlying issues regarding the process, Murkowski said. "Those claiming asylum are not criminals and should not be treated as if they were," she said. "
Sullivan said in a phone interview during his ride back to the Capitol that he still hoped to see immigration legislation advance. At the time, he had not seen Trump's executive order and said most of the immigration discussion Wednesday was what played out in front of the press.
The president emphasized that "we need to make sure that families are kept together but at the same time you can't also endorse or continue a policy of catch and release," Sullivan said, noting that this is an issue that has "bedeviled previous administrations" as well.
Sullivan said he wanted to see a legislative solution to the issue of illegal border crossing by families with young children.
"When you use executive orders … you might create temporary fixes to challenges, but as usual, to me, the best way is getting bipartisan legislation," he said.
Murkowski said earlier in the day that she was not clear on whether there really needed to be an executive order from the president, and noted that he had repeatedly called for Congress "to fix it."
"But the reality is, you've got a situation where since April, you have had the officials on the border taking very purposeful steps to separate families immediately. They weren't doing that before. Or if they were, we weren't seeing it reflected in the numbers," she said.
Like Sullivan, Murkowski was hopeful that the Senate will be able to achieve legislative success but it would require bipartisan compromise, including some bending from the Democrats.
"One of the things that we need to remember is part of the problem at the border is we don't have sufficient infrastructure — on the human side and the facilities side — to deal with the influx" of migrants, Murkowski said.
She said she visited the border several years ago and witnessed the rise of unaccompanied children coming across the border. At the time, Congress provided more immigration judges. The number of judges must rise again, she said.
"We are still wholly, wholly inadequate in being able to process individuals and process families quickly," she said.
Even if the Trump administration decides on a policy to not separate families, "we still haven't addressed much of the underlying issue, which is how do we ensure a fair and expeditious process for those who are seeking asylum? How do we ensure that we've got immigration system and process that is just more more humane overall?" Murkowski said.
"We are a nation of laws. We respect that. But we are also a nation where there is compassion and there is caring and particularly when it comes to children," she said. "Splitting them up does not help these children."
Earlier in the day, Sullivan signed on to co-sponsor legislation by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz that would require that families be kept together, with exceptions related to protecting the safety of the children, particularly in cases of human trafficking.
The bill would authorize new family shelters for keeping families together. And it would speed processing of asylum cases for people who arrive with children. Asylum seekers who meet the legal standards to stay would stay, and others would return to their home countries as families, with the decision required within 14 days.
To help accomplish the faster timeline, the bill would more than double the number of federal immigration judges, from 275 to 750.
It was not clear how a presidential order could impact the details of that legislation or its prospects for passage.
Murkowski had not yet seen the text of Cruz's bill but said she saw a framework for it Tuesday and supported the direction he was going with it.
"I think the contours of it are good. You keep the families together. You allow for a clear and fair and expeditious process. You provide for more detention facilities to house the families and you allow for a plus-up, a doubling in the immigration judges," she said.
Murkowski joined 11 other Republican senators Tuesday night in calling for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop separating parents and children while Congress works out a long-term solution.
"The current family separation crisis has multiple contributing causes, including court decisions that require release rather than detention of children but not parents who enter our country illegally. But the immediate cause of the crisis is your Department's recent institution of a 'zero tolerance' policy under which all adults who enter the United States illegally are referred for prosecution, regardless of whether such individuals are claiming asylum and regardless of whether they are accompanied by minor children," Murkowski and 11 other senators wrote in a letter to Sessions and copied to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
"Although enforcing our immigration laws is an essential responsibility of the federal government, it must be done in a way that is consistent with our values and ordinary human decency," the senators wrote.
The efforts to manage the issue came in response to widespread alarm over news of children's detention centers with cages and "tender age shelters" filled with weeping toddlers. Plans for reunification of those families are limited and unclear.
Before Trump's announcement Wednesday that he would sign an executive order, he blamed Democrats for the policy. A Clinton-era court decision said children cannot go to jail with their parents. A new policy implemented by the Trump administration has escalated family separations, but the president said the onus is on Congress to fix the problem. On Tuesday he urged Congress to pass legislation but in a meeting with House legislators did not offer a clear guide for what kind of bill he would sign.