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Alaska delegation looks for bipartisan response from Congress to immigration woes

A security officer keeps watch over a tent encampment housing immigrant children just north of the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, on Wednesday. REUTERS/Mike Blake

WASHINGTON — Alaska's congressional lawmakers say more action is needed in response to the crisis unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border, following Wednesday's presidential order ending the policy of separating children and their parents.

Generally, all three said bipartisan compromise from Congress is necessary.

"I hope that what has been brought to bear in this past week, as really the eyes of the nation have been directed towards a situation that I think they find intolerable — I certainly do. And the next question is: What steps are being taken to remedy this?" Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Thursday in an interview. "Don't just put words on paper — let's address the situation on the ground and let's do it expeditiously."

The most likely option for that would come from the Senate.

Alaska Rep. Don Young was not sure House negotiations would be successful. On Thursday the Republican voted in favor of the more conservative of two measures under consideration; it failed to pass. He expects to vote in favor of a second bill that would keep families from being separated at the border, provide citizenship for "Dreamers" and offer $25 billion in funding for a border wall. That vote has been pushed to next week.

Young laid blame for intransigence on both parties and said it is a problem that should have been fixed years ago.

Murkowski and Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan had more optimism on the Senate side, where bipartisan talks are underway.

Sullivan signed on as a co-sponsor to two bills written by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Tom Tillis, R-N.C.

The Cruz bill mandates that families be kept together and expedites processing of the cases of immigrants with children, doubles the number of federal immigration judges and authorizes new family shelters.

The Tillis bill also keeps families together, increases family residential facilities and authorizes hiring of judges to process cases.

"The bigger challenge but the more enduring solution is getting legislation passed," Sullivan said in a hallway interview Thursday after votes at the Capitol.

"I'm hopeful that there's a bipartisan approach that looks at codifying what pretty much everybody in the Republican conference agrees to, which is the combination of no separation of the families (with exceptions to protect vulnerable children) … but not encouraging the catch-and-release policy that I don't think many Alaskans or Americans support."

Murkowski has been meeting with a bipartisan group of senators looking for common ground, she said. On Wednesday they met in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a gathering that included Cruz and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who has authored her own legislation.

"We talked through some of the areas of common ground in the bills that have been outlined and some of the differences, and whether or not they could bridge those divides," Murkowski said.

It "is not going to be wholesale immigration reform. I would love to do that. But right now you've got a situation where families are being yanked apart, and children are going off into different locations where the parents may or may not know where they are. This is not a situation that we want to continue. Let's focus on the immediate issue at hand," Murkowski said.

While talks continued in the House and Senate, President Donald Trump switched gears Friday morning and said on Twitter that Republicans "should stop wasting their time" on immigration legislation until after November elections, in which he expects a wave of new Republican lawmakers to be elected.

Murkowski has been critical of the administration's approach to detaining children and separating families at the border. She and Young spoke of their sympathy for the plight of asylum seekers and even economic migrants who aim to come here legally but then find years-long waits or are simply turned away at the border.

"How are we going to provide for a process going forward that is expeditious and fair, and really, what are we going to do to address the reality that you have families who are trying to come in through the designated ports of entry and who are not being allowed in that portal because they lack capacity to process them?" Murkowski asked. "And so these families then, instead of walking 2,000 miles back to their home, they make another approach into the country, unfortunately unlawfully."

"We don't want to push them to have to become criminals by coming in the back door when they are lining up to come in the front door. That is something that we can do to address the issue on the ground," Murkowski said.

Young said he has sympathy for those who choose the illegal route after finding that, even with a family sponsor, a job and clean background, processing can still take nearly a decade.

"This is a strange thing to say, but we brag about being the greatest democracy in the world. We brag about having the greatest opportunity in the world. We brag about being the most diverse in the world. We brag so much we advertise and everybody wants to come here. And I feel for those people that are trying to do this. But there should be a better way to do it legally," Young said.

"I always said if you're illegal, declare yourself illegal and you'll be given a green card after a background check, and you have to apply for citizenship. And they say that's amnesty. Well, I guess it is to a degree, but what is the other alternative?"

Both Young and Sullivan raised concerns about the message sent to migrants — that children are a "ticket" to freedom on the U.S. side of the border.

The "last thing we want is to send a signal" to Central America that if you show up with a child, "somehow you're going to get a free pass into the country after 20 days," Sullivan said. "That will almost certainly create a very big increase in that kind of migration." And "if you care about the kids, that situation is so fraught" with potential for abuse and trafficking, he said.

Taking in asylum seekers is "an important part of the legacy of our country. I also do believe that if you're an economic migrant, that's different," Sullivan said.

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