The week’s political news was dominated by immigration across several fronts.
It was supposed to focus on the long-awaited congressional debate over Republican bills that offer some relief for former recipients of DACA, an Obama-era decision that gave immigrants brought to the US as children a path to citizenship.
But before it even began, the congressional immigration debate was overshadowed by a passionate public debate over a new Trump administration initiative that led to thousands of children being separated from their families. Then, forced to beat a tactical retreat from this unpopular idea, the administration went on the offense with a bold new legal strategy that aims to give them new tools for getting tough on asylum seekers.
Beyond immigration, more reports surfaced of dodgy behavior by Trump cabinet members. But the most embattled Trump official of all actually managed to strengthen his position.
Here’s what you need to know.
Outrage boiled over at family separations
Political controversy over the mass-incarceration of children under the Trump administration’s policy of “zero tolerance” prosecutions for asylum-seekers reached a breaking-point this week. Politicians from both parties denounced the practice of family separation.
- The choice: The key policy choice here was not separation per se, but the decision to prosecute asylum-seekers on misdemeanor illegal entry charges — with separation following naturally from the jailing of parents.
- The Flores factor: Prosecution leads to separation because of a 1997 court case Flores v. Reno, that led to strict limits on the government’s ability to keep children in immigration detention. Consequently, to keep families together you have to keep the entire family out of detention — allowing them some freedom of movement while they await their asylum hearing.
- Trump sort-of backed down: On Wednesday the administration issued new orders stating its intention to keep families together after all. But they also promised to redouble their commitment to “zero tolerance” by dispatching military lawyers to border areas and increase the government’s ability to prosecute.
Trump got ready for a legal battle
By Thursday afternoon, it was clear that Trump had not so much changed course on the family separations issue as beaten a tactical retreat. The Justice Department filed paperwork in federal court in California asking to overturn Flores and allow them to implement a form of mass family detention that was attempted under Obama but struck down by the courts.
- Separations required: In the legal filing, the administration writes that under current law “ICE is required to separate parents or guardians” in an apparent effort to set up a return to the family separation policy, but this time blaming the courts for it, in the event that Flores is upheld.
- The real choice: The reality under Flores is that nothing of the sort is forced; the government has the option to simply decline to prosecute on illegal entry charges and let asylum claims be adjudicated before locking anyone up.
- Trump’s not a big fan of judges: The president, meanwhile, tweeted Thursday morning that the whole idea of requiring a legal process featuring judges before dismissing people’s asylum claims is a mistake.
House Republicans spun their wheels on immigration
Mostly separate from the family detention issue, this was the week House Republicans had been planning for a while to hold votes on two different pieces of immigration legislation — one a very hawkish bill authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and the other a less-hawkish “compromise” measure touted by leadership though written without Democratic involvement.
- The Securing America’s Future Act: The more conservative of the two bills, the Securing America’s Future Act would give temporary (and renewable) legal status to DACA recipients under fairly stringent terms, cut legal immigration by 25 percent, and turned overstaying visas into a prosecutable crime. It failed to pass late Thursday.
- Moderates gave up: A few weeks ago, House Democrats were close to getting enough moderate Republicans to sign on to a discharge petition that would have forced a vote on a bipartisan DREAM Act-type measure. But in the end, moderates abandoned that process, handed the keys over to House leadership, and leadership then negotiated a deal with the far-right Freedom Caucus.
- The “compromise” bill: The compromise they came up with would create a path to citizenship for some DREAMers, make cuts to legal immigration, and make it more difficult for people to secure asylum in the United States. It has no Democratic support and stands no chance in the Senate.
There were some more Cabinet scandals
It was largely overshadowed by the dramatic news on the immigration front, but new facts came to light regarding financial conflicts of interest concerning Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and more questionable uses of public funds by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
- Tactical pants: Pruitt, who’s been under fire for everything from lavish spending on first-class air fare to having his security detail scour Ritz-Carlton hotels in search of a special hand lotion, turns out to have spent nearly $3,000 on “tactical pants” and “tactical polos.”
- Auto parts investigations: More substantively, journalists at Forbes revealed that Ross’s large stake in the International Auto Components Group has been transferred to a trust benefitting his family (this is a legally permissible form of divestment under existing ethics law) even as the Secretary himself has been put in charge of an investigation into whether the United States should impose tariffs on foreign cars or car parts — a clear conflict.
- A vote of confidence: Any hint that Pruitt might be in actual political trouble was dispelled this week, when Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who chairs the relevant committee, met with the embattled EPA chief and pronounced himself “a little embarrassed” to have ever doubted him.