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We asked 8 Republican senators how they plan to address family separations — if at all

Trump could just stop this — does Congress have a responsibility to?

Senate Republicans And Democrats Hold Weekly Policy Luncheons
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Senate will try to work with Democrats to reach a narrow fix for family separations.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s administration has made it very clear: The only way the administration will stop separating families at the border is if Congress puts an end to it.

To date, more than 2,300 children, from infants to teenagers, have been separated from their families under the Trump administration — the result of a “zero tolerance” policy that criminally prosecutes all asylum seekers who crossed the border illegally.

Trump’s administration is acting like its hands are tied; “Congress alone can fix it,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters at a press conference about the family separation crisis.

But as Democrats, and several Republicans, have pointed out, if Trump — who himself has called the family separations “horrible” — wants his administration to stop this practice, he could simply call for it to end.

Vox asked eight Republican senators whether it’s Congress’s sole responsibility to keep families together at the border — and if so, what they plan on doing about it. Here are transcripts of the exchanges, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA): “What they’re doing is they’re enforcing the law”

Senate Lawmakers Discuss Ongoing Immigration Reform Efforts Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Ella Nilsen

I was wondering what your thoughts are on the White House statements that only Congress can come up with a solution to the family separation issue.

David Perdue

Well, I haven’t seen that statement, but I think what he’s talking about, and I made the same statement yesterday, is that there’s a court ruling about the amount of time children can be detained—

Ella Nilsen

Right, the Flores settlement.

David Perdue

Right, exactly. So to deal with that, we need to have a legislative solution, and that’s the way I think we’re all acting. This is another manifestation of a broken immigration system. It’s not just this one issue; the whole thing is broken. The Democrats want to go back to “catch and release,” which just incentivizes more illegal entry. So it’s a tragedy about the children, and that will get fixed, but this is a much bigger problem.

Ella Nilsen

What are your thoughts on some of the bills that your Republican colleagues have floated? Sen. [Ted] Cruz, Sen. [John] Cornyn have talked about proposing some bills.

David Perdue

Yeah, I think there are some solutions in there, no question about it. But again, how did this get created? We went through a decade where laws weren’t enforced, and so we just incented people around the world to take advantage of our own laws and the lack of enforcement.

I think what President Trump is doing is exactly right, but we have to take care of this loophole. This is what Secretary Nielsen’s been talking about since she was confirmed, is that there are loopholes in here like this that have to be resolved.

Ella Nilsen

Some of your Republican colleagues have called on a moratorium on this practice while Congress can figure this out — do you support this?

David Perdue

Well, that’s the question. I don’t know what has to happen immediately, but there’s no reason why the Senate or the House ... why we can’t move to get this thing done. I haven’t seen an interim solution yet that makes sense, so we’ve just got to get it solved.

Once this gets solved, we still have the bigger issue of what are we going to do around our national security issue around border security and what we do with legal immigrant issues here.

Ella Nilsen

Do you have concerns about the taxpayer money that’s being spent as a result of this policy? There’s are thousands of undocumented kids being housed in federal facilities as a result.

David Perdue

I made that comment today; we talked about the bill we are putting forward to cut spending. We have a financial crisis. We’re spending money on things we cannot afford. Most of what we’re spending in discretionary spending is borrowed money — so yes, I’m very concerned about the problem we created and the money that we’re spending to deal with it.

The first thing you have to do is deal with the border security, then you have to enforce the laws, then you have to close the loopholes, and that’s what Secretary Nielsen and the president have been talking about for over a year. Our problem is that we have to have 60 votes to do most of this, and we have not had Democratic cooperation.

Ella Nilsen

But do you think this family separation policy is adding to this unnecessary spending?

David Perdue

Well, the policy is it’s a law. It’s not a policy, it’s a ruling by a court that says they can’t be separated. So what they’re doing is they’re enforcing the law.

Ella Nilsen

Sure, but the practical effect is that these children are being separated from their parents.

David Perdue

That’s a secondary issue. It takes police officers to enforce the law, too. What, are you not going to employ any police officers? So I think that’s a moot question, moot argument.

The problem I have is that by not enforcing the law and creating these loopholes and these incentives over a long period of time, we’ve created this huge crisis that costs so much money to deal with. I’m saying go back to the root causes and you’ll save a lot more money than you would worry about one issue.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY): “There are lots of compelling issues that need to be addressed — and this is one”

Senate Legislators Address The Media After Their Weekly Party Luncheons
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) wouldn’t say whether he thought the family separations at the border were an “emergency.”
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tara Golshan

With about 60 kids being separated from their families every day at this point, do you agree with the White House that it’s Congress alone that can stop this?

John Barrasso

Well, the president has said we need a solution. The Republicans say we need a solution. The Democrats say we need to solve this problem. We need to solve the problem, and I think we can do it in a way that follows the law, keeps families together, and works to secure the border.

Tara Golshan

So what do you say to proposals from your colleagues that say pause this policy for now until we can get a solution? I mean, it’s 60 kids a day.

John Barrasso

We are going to continue working to find a solution. I want to keep families together.

Matt Laslo, reporter

Does this feel like the level of an emergency?

John Barrasso

There are lots of compelling issues that need to be addressed — and this is one.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC): “As far as ... the zero-tolerance, they could change that tomorrow, the White House could”

Senate Lawmakers Address The Media After Weekly Policy Luncheons Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Ella Nilsen

I was curious what your thoughts are on the White House statement that only Congress can come up with a fix for this.

Lindsey Graham

Well, I said a while ago that the underlying problem Congress needs to address, but as far as the policy change, the “zero tolerance,” they could change that tomorrow, the White House could.

Ella Nilsen

What are your thoughts on some of the bills that have come out so far, like [Sen. Dianne] Feinstein’s [D-CA] bill?

Lindsey Graham

I like what I see from Cruz, but I haven’t seen the text yet. So we’ll see if we can marry up the Feinstein idea with somebody else’s idea.

Burgess Everett, Politico

What’s your sense of if the conference wants to make a Republican bill at this point?

Lindsey Graham

I’d like to have a position to get behind as a Republican, realizing that we need to work with Democrats to get a solution. So that’d be good. I don’t think anybody wins by having dueling bills. I think people want an outcome.

Manu Raju, CNN

What was the mood like in there today?

Lindsey Graham

I don’t know, I took my sister to lunch.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN): “What we’re doing is not appropriate”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

Bob Corker

We need to act and we need to deal with the entire issue itself. But this is something they [the Trump administration] can change in a minute.

Reporter

What do you think of Trump saying, “Oh, Democrats aren’t sitting at the table, that’s why.”

Bob Corker

Nah, this is something that the administration needs to take leadership on. They can fix it temporarily until they put forth legislation or we put forth legislation.

Ella Nilsen

What bills would you support on this?

Bob Corker

So many of them are being crafted that I don’t want to say which one. But I know Judiciary Committee members are looking at it, and I look forward to being part of solving the problem.

What I worry about right now is there being a Democratic bill and a Republican bill, and both sides saying they have a solution but no real solution. In 2013, we had momentum; we should have passed a comprehensive bill at the time. We’ve had nothing but problems since. This requires a very narrow solution. I hope we’re able to come up with a bipartisan bill.

Reporter

Sen. [Orrin] Hatch [R-UT] is calling for a moratorium …

Bob Corker

That can happen for a period of time while legislation is being drafted. All the president would have to say is, “That’s what we’re going to do.” What we’re doing right now is not appropriate.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): “I think they are right in following the law and going through the policies that they have today”

Senate Lawmakers Discuss Ongoing Immigration Reform Efforts Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Tara Golshan

Do you agree with the White House that it’s the full responsibility of Congress to stop the separating families policy?

Thom Tillis

I think I agree that the White House should expect Congress to make the clarifying changes so that we can keep the families together. And I think they are right in their position.

Tara Golshan

You think they are right to separate the families or —

Thom Tillis

No, I think they are right in following the law and going through the policies that they have today. As I said today, if we want a sustainable solution that doesn’t vary from administration to administration, then we should act. And the people that are out here trying to politicize it with no genuine interest in solving the problem, then shame on them.

Reporter

What legislation would you support?

Thom Tillis

Feinstein has a bill, which I think has problems because it basically would force the full release of the family. I have not looked at Cruz’s bill yet, and Sen. Cornyn, to his credit, is trying to — as he always does — come up with a consensus bill.

Reporter

So you haven’t decided which you support?

Thom Tillis

No, not yet. But we have got to come up with one that keeps the families together but also allows the adjudication process. And by the way, if someone comes to a port of entry, this is a non-issue because they haven’t committed a crime. This is about people who have crossed the border illegally.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR): “Liberal judges have imposed this rule that children cannot be held for more than 20 days”

Senators Arrive To Senate Intelligence Closed Briefing
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is one of the biggest immigration hardliners in the Senate.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Tara Golshan

Now with more than 2,000 kids having been separated from their families, do you agree with the White House that it is on Congress alone to fix this? Some of your colleagues are suggesting a pause until Congress can figure this out.

Tom Cotton

Well, Congress doesn’t have the best track record with moving on things like this. The administration has to act under the legal constraints they face. And the legal constraints are that liberal judges have imposed this rule that children cannot be held for more than 20 days.

We should overturn that rule. It’s very simple to do, and it would allow families to be held together at the border. That’s the quickest solution.

Tara Golshan

So is there an urgency now to —

Tom Cotton

Well, it just so happens that we have the military construction spending bill this week, so we can propose an amendment that can overturn that 20-day rule and provide a little extra money for family housing.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC): “You could ignore the law, but I wouldn’t suggest [Trump] do that”

Senate Lawmakers Address The Media After Their Weekly Policy Luncheons Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tara Golshan

Do you agree with the White House position that it’s on Congress alone to stop the family separations at the border?

Richard Burr

What was their comment?

Tara Golshan

That it’s on Congress alone to stop the family separations —

Richard Burr

Well, the president is enforcing the law. You could ignore the law, but I wouldn’t suggest he do that.

Tara Golshan

So you don’t agree with your colleagues that are proposing a temporary pause until Congress has time to figure out some kind of solution here?

Richard Burr

I think to do that would take legislation, unless the administration would go back to a “catch and release” where they don’t have to exercise a criminal process for illegals.

Tara Golshan

Do you support any of the proposals out there to stop [family separations]?

Richard Burr

I haven’t seen them yet. [Steps into elevator.]

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME): “The White House has the authority to immediately suspend the ‘zero tolerance’ policy that it’s instituted”

Senate Debates Passage Of Continuing Resolution As Shutdown Deadline Looms Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Ella Nilsen

On the issue of family separation, what do you think of the White House statements that only Congress can come up with a fix for this?

Susan Collins

The White House has the authority to immediately suspend the “zero tolerance” policy that it’s instituted. And I’m going to sign Orrin Hatch’s letter, which suggests just that, while we work on a longer-term legislative solution. [Senate subway doors close.]