Competition of cruelty: Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz offer rival GOP plans on border crisis — both will fail

Two Republican senators, in a symphony of cynicism, propose harsh anti-immigrant bills disguised as solutions

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published June 20, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Tom Cotton; Ted Cruz (Getty Images/Photo montage by Salon)
Tom Cotton; Ted Cruz (Getty Images/Photo montage by Salon)

Amid the raging controversy about his administration's policy of detaining children in camps along the Mexican border, President Donald Trump traveled to his glitzy new Washington hotel on Tuesday to deliver the keynote address for the first official fundraiser for America First Action, the primary super PAC supporting his 2020 re-elect campaign. Tickets, ranging from $100,000 to $250,000, granted GOP donors access to Trump’s inner circle, including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, two Republican senators who have offered so-called solutions to the family separation policy, also attended the fundraiser at the Trump Hotel — suggesting that there is considerable cynicism behind conservative reaction to this crisis. The unique bureaucratic brutality of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy may have triggered rare instances where Republican leaders in Congress have been willing to publicly rebuke the president. But even as they offer legislative fixes to the problem, Republicans are exploiting the crisis to further their anti-immigration agenda.

Before his fundraiser, Trump traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to repeat the false claim that current law gives his administration only two options for handling people who cross the border illegally: "Totally open borders or criminal prosecution."

"What I'm asking Congress to do is to give us a third option which we have been requesting [since] last year," Trump told the House Republican caucus. "The legal authority to detain and properly remove families together as a unit."

But Republicans in the House can't agree whether they should fix the family separation issue on its own or include it in a broader bill — like one of the more comprehensive immigration policy overhauls they’ve been arguing over for months. Two bills will be brought to a floor vote this week, a hardline proposal from the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a more moderate bill. Both are expected to fail a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he wants to pass narrow legislation to end the Trump administration policy. Cruz and Cotton have both offered relatively narrow bills that purport to solve the problem — although, in effect, they both use the crisis to penalize asylum seekers.

Every Democratic senator, on the other hand, has backed a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that would prohibit removing a child from a parent within 100 miles of the U.S. border. Hardline immigration opponents, like Sen. Tom Cotton, pounced. Cotton quickly took to Twitter to call the Democratic proposal to keep children with their parents the "Child Trafficking Encouragement Act."

Cotton, a father of two, deployed the same spurious argument that the president's hands are tied, to defend Trump's current policy.

"Congress doesn't have the best track record in moving quickly on things like this," the Arkansas Republican said during an interview with right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. Cotton suggested that an amendment to the spending bill, scheduled for a full Senate vote this week, could stop the separation of families:

All we need to do, Hugh, is overturn the so-called Flores settlement, allow families to be held at the border, provide a little bit of extra money to the military and DHS for family housing units while those claims are adjudicated. We’re going to offer an amendment this week on the spending bill. It can be done promptly. But it’ll expose the Democrats for what they are – advocates of totally open borders, because they don’t want families held together at the border, Hugh. This is not about family separation for the Democrats. This is about an open border policy that lets children be a "get out of jail free" card and a "get into the U.S. free" card.

Republicans have frequently referred to the 1997 Flores settlement, which requires the federal government to release all undocumented immigrant children after 20 days, as a “loophole” that encourages unauthorized immigration. Trump’s new policy, and Cotton’s defense, does not distinguish between people who cross the border in violation of U.S. law and those who seek asylum or refugee status, which is entirely legal.

Suffice it to say, there's a difference between detaining undocumented immigrant parents and imprisoning U.S. parents convicted of crimes. In most cases, the children of the latter normally have family who can provide for them.

As for Ted Cruz’s newly introduced legislation, it too misuses the language of child protection and trafficking to promote dangerous policy. Exploiting the family separation outrage to sneak in an anti-immigrant bill, Cruz introduced the “Protect Kids and Parents Act” — just days after he dismissed “all the media attention on separation of families” as “really saying . . . ‘don’t incarcerate those who come here illegally.’”

“All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers. This must stop,” Cruz said in a statement on Tuesday. His proposal will ultimately leave Trump’s zero-tolerance policy in place, require that asylum cases be heard within 14 days and provide funding for so-called family detention centers.

That President Trump has the power to end this crisis unilaterally is beyond question. He could transfer judges and their supporting staff from other federal courts, including criminal courts, if he actually had any interest in solving the backlog at the border. He doesn't, so he won't. 

"Ultimately we need to have a real border, not judges," Trump said. "Thousands and thousands of judges they want to hire. Who are these people?"

The average asylum case takes about 50 hours of a single lawyer’s time, according to Vox. Neither Trump nor Cruz nor Cotton are serious about any solution to the family separation crisis. They view the policy as a successful deterrent to undocumented immigration and as a winning political issue with their base. The bad optics of crying children are just a convenient cover to pass ever harsher anti-immigrant legislation that no one will read closely if it gets the kids out of cages.

Far-right leaders have double standards for immigrants

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By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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