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'Americans are better than this,' Sen. Ben Sasse says as debate builds over separating families at border

'Americans are better than this,' Sen. Ben Sasse says as debate builds over separating families at border

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WASHINGTON — Stories of immigrant children ripped from their parents’ arms at the U.S.-Mexico border have sparked national outrage, including in Nebraska.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., blasted the Trump administration policy as “wicked” and called for its end in a lengthy Facebook post Monday. He said it was prompted by constituents’ questions when he was in Nebraska over the weekend.

“Family separation is wicked,” Sasse wrote. “It is harmful to kids and absolutely should NOT be the default U.S. policy. Americans are better than this.”

But President Donald Trump dug in Monday, declaring that he would keep the U.S. from becoming “a migrant camp.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking at a sheriffs conference Monday, said the family separations are necessary. “If we build a wall, if we pass some legislation, we close some loopholes, we won’t face these terrible choices,” he said.

Democrats have turned up the pressure over the family separation policy, and some Republicans have joined the chorus of criticism. GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine expressed concern about it, and a former adviser to Trump questioned using the policy to pressure Democrats on new immigration legislation. Former first lady Laura Bush called the separation policy “cruel” and “immoral,” joining the other three living former first ladies condemning the practice.

Sasse wrote that the administration has made a conscious choice to separate families.

“Anyone saying that their hands are tied or that the only conceivable way to fix the problem of catch-and-release is to rip families apart is flat wrong,” he wrote. “There are other options available to them.”

Those options are messy, he wrote, but available.

But Sasse also criticized the past practice of releasing people into the United States while they await a hearing date, with the result that many never show up for the hearing. He called for tackling the problem in the narrowest way possible and said he is working with Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., but did not specify what their proposal might be.

Sasse is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration issues. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is chairman of that committee and said in a statement that the goal should always be to keep families together as much as possible.

But he said the government is in a quandary because of what is known as the Flores settlement reached in 1997. It requires officials to place detained minors in the least restrictive setting appropriate.

“The Trump administration is choosing to enforce longstanding immigration laws,” Grassley said. “I believe the easiest way to solve this crisis is to repeal the Flores decision. ...

“If Democrats were serious about keeping families together, they would support such a fix. Anything less than that simply continues the misguided catch-and-release policies of the last administration.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect, “mothers should not be separated from their children.”

As for solutions, he said, “Congress can act to provide humane sheltering, expedite processing of genuine asylum cases and immediately prosecute those exploiting children.”

Other Nebraska and Iowa lawmakers provided written statements that were light on specific steps that should be taken by the administration or Congress.

“Iowans sent me to Congress to represent their values, and Iowa values don’t include separating families and putting children at risk,” Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, said. “This is all the more reason Congress should act to find a solution which protects our borders and citizens, and ensures those families coming in, albeit illegally, aren’t separated.”

“While I firmly support the detention of adults who cross our border illegally, I think we can all agree that no one wants to see children separated from their parents,” said Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb. “We should do a better job of communicating there is a right way and a wrong way to enter our country.”

Trump plans to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss pending immigration legislation amid the election season debate over what has been one of his favorite issues.

The House is expected to vote this week on a bill pushed by conservatives that may not have enough support to pass, and a compromise measure with key proposals supported by the president. The White House has said Trump would sign either one.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said in a statement that families are the heart of our society and that “we should not be separating them at the border because of outdated and broken immigration policies.”

He suggested finding suitable shelter and speeding up the adjudication process.

“However, we cannot allow those involved in sex trafficking or those with criminal or terrorist ties to walk right in with people who simply want a better life,” he said, adding that he believed the legislation to be voted on this week would “not only prioritize border security, but end family separation and curb illegal immigration.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, stood with the Trump administration.

“I believe that we absolutely need to treat children in our immigration system with compassion and utmost care; and I support the administration’s policy of enforcing our nation’s immigration laws and deterring illegal re-entry,” Ernst said.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said in a statement that she shares the concerns of many Nebraskans about young children being separated from parents.

“The focus shouldn’t be on politicizing this issue,” Fischer said. “What we need is a targeted legislative fix.” Her statement did not specify what that fix should be.

The issue also is forcing some governors to take a stand. Gov. Charlie Baker said he is reversing a decision to send a Massachusetts National Guard helicopter and crew to the U.S.-Mexico border, citing the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents.

The Republican governor called the policy of taking children from their parents as families arrive at the border “cruel and inhumane.”

Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement saying children should not be separated from their families.

“The previous policy of catch-and-release was unacceptable because it made our border problem worse, but it does not make the expanded practice of separating children from their families humane,” Ricketts said.

He called for an overhaul of immigration policies:

“Let’s build the wall, hire more Border Patrol agents, and crack down on the businesses that recruit and hire illegal immigrants with steep fines. And along the way, let’s ensure children do not get caught in the crossfire on American soil when it comes to Washington politics.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH. Email:joseph.morton@owh.com

Related to this story

In Nebraska, some 2,900 children are currently separated from their parents or primary caregivers. The children have lawyers and social workers. They are supposed to have access to resources like counseling. Extra steps are taken to place them with relatives. On the border, the children have been sent to group shelters, in some cases a converted Walmart with cyclone fencing and floor mats.

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