The Texas Observer

What Texas Republicans Are (and Aren’t) Saying About Trump’s Family Separation Policy

What Texas Republicans Are (and Aren’t) Saying About Trump’s Family Separation Policy

Over the past couple of weeks, the nation has been forced to confront the realities of President Trump’s goal of stopping immigration at the southern border with sheer force. We’ve seen a torrent of coverage about the ramifications of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy that has resulted in the separation of families caught trying to illegally cross the border — jailing the parents and putting the children in makeshift “tent cities” with no clear plan to reunite them.

The Trump administration has responded to the widespread outrage, horror and comparisons to Nazi concentration camps and U.S. internment camps for Japanese-American citizens during WWII with a full spectrum of defenses: Trump blames the Democrats; Jeff Sessions cited the Bible; nationalist policy advisor Stephen Miller openly boasted about it; Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen first denied that family separation is happening, then said Monday that the administration is merely enforcing the law.

So what are Texas Republicans saying about the seemingly endless stream of stories about families being split up that’s playing out in their home state?

Let’s start with the outliers: those Republicans who are ostensibly opposed to family separation.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a relatively moderate Republican who’s retiring from office in January, said in a statement to the Observer: “The President should not be using children as bargaining chips. The President should reverse this policy and keep families together as much as possible. Separately, Congress should finally get immigration legislation passed that addresses asylum, border security and a path for dreamers along the lines that Congressman [Will] Hurd has proposed.”

Hurd, who represents the 23rd Congressional District, which includes a huge swath of the Texas-Mexico border, and is facing a strong election challenge in November, told NPR that “taking kids from their mothers is not preventing terrorists or drugs from coming into this country.” He recently toured the “tent city” that could soon house as many as 4,000 kids in Tornillo, Texas.

He told CNN that “We should not be using kids as a deterrent policy. This is something I think is actually unacceptable, and is something that as Americans we shouldn’t be doing.”

Hurd and Straus are largely the exceptions to the rule. Other Texas Republicans are taking a hard line. Their basic position: Trump’s crusade to secure the border and stop illegal immigration is thoroughly righteous and for the media and the Democrats to say otherwise is hypocritical (Obama did it, too!).

After all, it’s an election year and most Republicans are wary about appearing soft-hearted on immigration or insufficiently loyal to Trump, who is broadcasting his intention to launch more crackdowns before the midterms.

Both Texas senators — Ted Cruz and John Cornyn — seem to understand that the optics of children in cages is bad and have offered their own legislation that would apparently keep kids with their families but radically shorten how long the children would have to make asylum claims. Such legislation was a nonstarter when Cornyn pushed for his HUMANE Act in 2014, which immigration advocates condemned at the time as expediting the deportation process for minors, many of whom lack attorneys and may not even understand their rights.

Cruz has also voiced support for Trump’s tactics, calling separation “inevitable.” On Sunday, his Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke led a march to the “tent city” set up near the port of entry in Tornillo to protest the family separations.

In an interview with NBC5, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “This is horrible and this rips everyone’s hearts apart about what is going on.” But he followed Trump’s lead, blaming the Democrats for not passing some unspecified law that would “end the ripping apart of these families and make the border secure.”

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on Friday that, “In terms of families, we want to keep families together, but that cannot be an excuse to break our laws.”

On Fox Business Monday afternoon, Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “[Trump’s] job is to enforce the law, not to make it up. What he’s doing is securing the border, just like he said he’d do.” Paxton went on to blame Obama for “ignoring existing law” and creating a situation where “effectively it was an open border for everyone.”

In fact, Trump chose to split up families when it implemented its “zero-tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute all unauthorized border-crossers, including the parents of children, many of whom are asylum-seekers. No other administration has had such a policy because of the completely predictable results and the trauma inflicted on children and parents.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush told reporters at the Texas Republican Convention in San Antonio on Friday that the family separations are “reflective of the failures of Washington, D.C. politics,” but said he didn’t “want to dive into specifics.”

Republican congressmen facing tough re-election campaigns have taken varied approaches on immigration. Pete Sessions, who represents a Dallas-area congressional district, hasn’t tempered much at all and is instead aligning himself with right-wing efforts to dramatically curtail immigration.

On the other hand, Houston’s John Culberson took a different tack, saying in a statement, “young children should not be separated from their parents.” (He didn’t say if it was OK for older children to be separated.)

Sure, families shouldn’t be separated, Republicans say, but maybe those irresponsible law-breaking parents shouldn’t have been so audacious as to bring along their children as they flee some of the most dangerous countries in the world.