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Republicans are starting to worry that voters will punish them for family separations

Yet congressional Republicans still haven’t come together to fix the issue.

Protestors in Los Angeles march against the separation of migrant children from their families.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Some Republicans are starting to panic about how backlash to the Trump administration’s family separation practice will affect the midterms this fall — but Republicans in Congress haven’t come together behind a plan to stop it yet.

According to a Quinnipiac poll released on Monday, an overwhelming 66 percent of voters oppose family separations. At least 2,000 families have been separated in the past six weeks. Children are being kept in cages. Experts say the trauma from such a separation can have lifelong consequences.

Republican strategists are worried about what this might mean in November’s elections. One anonymous Republican operative told CNN that the issue has been “hitting home.” “Worst of all, it’s not just affecting border districts but suburban women as well,” the operative said.

Another Republican strategist told NBC News, “The media will broadcast these images of brutality and chaos and the public will associate them with the Republicans that run the House and the Senate — but most of all with President Trump.”

“Somehow I don’t think that putting kids in cages is likely to go over very well with suburban moms,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said in a New York Times interview.

In a scathing editorial Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm as well, urging the Trump administration to stop separating children and parents as it seeks to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy, and emphasizing that its adherence to this practice is a shadow hanging over the midterms:

This is self-destructive politics. This year is the GOP’s best opportunity for immigration reform in a decade. If Republicans lose their House majority, they will have less leverage when the Supreme Court rules on legalization for Dreamers. If the Obama program is upheld, Mr. Trump won’t have obtained money for his border wall or anything else.

As for November, House control will be won or lost in swing districts where legalizing the Dreamers is popular and separating families isn’t. Members like California’s Steve Knight and Florida’s Carlos Curbelo need to show voters that they’re working toward a solution for Dreamers.

Congress could stop family separation

Trump has repeatedly tried to pass the buck to Congress on family separation even though it’s a policy that originated from a decision by his own administration:

Republicans, meanwhile, have emphasized that it’s well within the White House’s power to halt the separations. “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said during an appearance on CNN. “I’ll go tell him. If you don’t like families being separated, you can tell DHS, ‘Stop doing it.’”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) called this “wicked” practice a “new, discretionary choice” by the administration.

They are among a growing group of Republicans voicing their disagreement. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona have pressed the administration to offer more information about the impact of this practice on asylum seekers, while Arizona Sen. John McCain has slammed the move as an “affront to the decency of the American people.”

Despite many Republican lawmakers’ stated concerns with Trump’s family separation policy, the GOP has yet to coalesce around a concrete congressional response that would address the issue. As Vox’s Tara Golshan reports, Republicans have claimed that a “compromise” immigration bill circulating in the House would end family separation at the border, but it just keeps families and children in detention longer. (Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas have said they also have legislation in the works that would tackle this issue.)

Democrats, meanwhile, have floated a bill that would decisively bar family separations except in the cases of abuse and trafficking, a measure spearheaded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that now has the support of the entire Democratic caucus. As of yet, few Republicans have backed this legislation, a sign that while conservatives may be breaking with Trump on family separation, they’re still wary of fully articulating that opposition.

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