Georgia’s GOP lawmakers are walking a delicate line as images of tent cities, caged-in detention facilities and crying children being separated from their parents continue to dominate the news cycle.
The state's 10 House Republicans had aligned themselves with the White House and Republican leaders in recent weeks as the GOP embarked on an unexpected debate over immigration. But the Trump administration's new zero tolerance policy for families illegally crossing the border to seek asylum – which has resulted in more than 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents – has forced some to adjust their calculus.
Many of the state's Republican officials ducked reporters' questions about the policy, including nine of Georgia's 12 GOP congressmen, who declined or did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. That came even as prominent figures such as former first ladies Rosalynn Carter and Laura Bush and onetime Georgia Tech football coach Bill Curry warned about the "cruel, inhumane treatment of others" on the Southern border.
Democrats such as Atlanta Congressman John Lewis also upped their pressure on their GOP colleagues, while President Donald Trump blamed Democrats and deplored Congress to fix the problem.
Two Georgia GOP lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Karen Handel and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, expressed dismay about the situation on the border and called for a bipartisan solution, even though it appeared highly unlikely that any Democrat would sign onto either immigration plan being circulated in the House this week.
“We must find a more humane, compassionate approach — one that keeps families together to the fullest extent possible — as U.S. immigration authorities determine appropriate next steps,” Handel, R-Roswell, said in a statement. “At the same time, we must secure our borders once and for all in order to stop the flow of illegal crossings.”
Isakson spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said the Georgia Republican “does not think we should separate children from their parents at the border.”
“He believes Congress and the administration should work to keep families together whenever possible while enforcing our laws and protecting the border,” she said, mentioning his support of an immigration bill earlier this year that would have overturned court decisions requiring the separation of families while the parents are detained pending an immigration hearing.
Their comments came as House Republicans prepared to huddle with Trump on Tuesday evening to discuss immigration. The party is currently mulling two broader bills that would beef up border security and overhaul immigration law, as well as address the plight of Dreamers. One of the measures would allow migrant children to stay with their parents in detention facilities.
Centrists and conservatives alike are under massive pressure from their constituents to act on immigration ahead of the midterms, but the family separation news has further complicated an already politically treacherous debate. Many in the party are looking for political cover from Trump before advocating for any particular plan.
U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, said the country’s immigration laws “have long been broken or ignored” and that he plans to “be with the President working toward solutions.”
“Having a lawless border where anyone can cross at any time and any place for any reason is not a solution. It threatens national security, and I do not support it. Jailing children for the laws broken by their parents is also not a solution, and I do not support that,” Woodall said. “Doing nothing and allowing continued human trafficking to endanger lives is also not a solution, and I do not support it.”
Most Georgia Republicans have chosen to sidestep the debate entirely in recent days. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who has championed the White House's immigration policies over the last year, declined to answer reporters' questions about the zero tolerance border policy on Monday, saying he would not comment until he's been briefed. Other GOP lawmakers touted opioid legislation, Father's Day and the upcoming six-month anniversary of the tax law in recent tweets and public statements.
Democrats, meanwhile, have upped their own messaging on the issue. Several lawmakers visited new juvenile detention facilities along the Southern border over the weekend. Others took to social media to pressure their GOP colleagues.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, tweeted that the administration’s zero tolerance policy “runs counter to everything we stand for,” while Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called it “despicable.”
“If nothing more, the empathy of parenthood should trump politics,” she tweeted.
And then there's Lewis, who has sought to leverage his reputation as a major civil rights figure to drum up opposition to the policy. He marched through downtown Washington, D.C., last week to protest the border separations and raised alarm about what the administration's policy changes could mean for metro Atlanta earlier this month.
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, Lewis said the zero tolerance policy is not aligned with “what we believe in America.”
“I just feel that history will not be kind to us as a nation and as a people if we continue to go down this road,” he said. “We can do better. We can do much better.”