Georgia lawmakers on Capitol Hill were consumed by fallout on Tuesday over a Trump administration immigration policy that’s led to children being separated from their parents on the nation’s border with Mexico.
Many of the state’s 12 GOP members of Congress had sought to maintain distance between themselves and the heartbreaking images of tent cities, caged-in detention facilities and crying toddlers that have bombarded social media in recent days.
But after being pulled into emergency meetings with party leaders and inundated by questions from reporters, several locals scrambled to decry the separations — which have stemmed from the administration’s “zero tolerance” illegal immigration policy — and find a legislative solution to at least keep families together while in detention facilities.
“It’s tragic,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. “We’ve looked the other way too much and we’ve got a lot of people out there now who fall into this trap. It’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse.”
The clamor came as Georgia’s two Republican candidates for governor stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Donald Trump, who continued to blame Democrats for prompting the crisis through lax immigration enforcement.
Georgia Democrats, meanwhile, upped the pressure on their colleagues to denounce the president, framing the debate in sweeping moral terms.
“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,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta. “We can do better. We can do much better.”
Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate huddled separately on Tuesday to craft responses to the zero tolerance policy, which was carried out by the Trump administration this spring to help stem the tide of migrants illegally crossing the border to seek asylum.
The shift has caused more than 2,300 children to be taken away from their parents between May 5 and June 9, Brian Hastings, acting chief of law enforcement operations for the U.S. Border Patrol, told reporters Tuesday.
After the authorities apprehend families at the border and seek to prosecute them for entering the country illegally, they must transfer any children to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under the policy.
Between October and April, 711 unaccompanied immigrant children were placed with sponsors in Georgia, federal records show. In the fiscal year ending in September, that number was 1,350. Their adult sponsors are required to ensure the children show up for their immigration court proceedings.
News of the family separations prompted eight governors, including several Republicans, to announce this week that they would recall or refrain from sending National Guard troops to the border.
Asked about Georgia’s troops, Gov. Nathan Deal said he’s not had any “specific requests” to send troops to the U.S. border with Mexico.
Deal, a former congressman, said the separation of families of people who are in the U.S. illegally is “not new” but blamed an influx of immigrants, and not Trump’s policy, for the attention.
“It’s always traumatic when you have to confront those situations, but this one has brought more tension because we have apparently seen such a huge increase in the number of families with children who are at our border,” said Deal.
The governor’s remarks came as the two Republicans vying to succeed him, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, echoed comments emanating from the White House.
Kemp said he “unapologetically” stands with Trump on the debate, while Cagle said it was up to Congress to fix the nation’s “broken immigration system.”
“I want to see these families reunited as soon as possible, but we also must stop the perverse incentives that have encouraged so many families to take this risky journey,” said Cagle, who did not make clear what those “perverse incentives” were.
The winner of the July 24 gubernatorial runoff will face Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia House Democratic leader who has vowed to oppose what she describes as discriminatory Trump policies.
“The cruel, immoral practice of separating migrant children from their parents must come to an immediate end,” she said. “Regardless of political party, all of us must stand up and speak up for the voiceless – or risk inflicting irreparable damage on these families and to our nation.”
Most U.S. House Republicans from Georgia tried to dodge the issue on Monday and Tuesday ahead of a private meeting with Trump, declining requests for comment. Some sought to change the subject entirely, tweeting about taxes, opioid legislation and their party’s new budget blueprint.
Others carefully distanced themselves from the separation policy and called on both parties to work together to ensure that families can stay together.
“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,” said U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell. “At the same time, we must secure our borders once and for all in order to stop the flow of illegal crossings.”
But the partisan finger-pointing also continued for much of Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., one of Trump’s most loyal allies, blamed Democrats for incentivizing illegal border crossings and stonewalling GOP immigration bills earlier this year.
“I wonder if they really want to solve this or they want it for a political platform pandering opportunity for the elections this November,” Perdue said, noting bills he co-sponsored earlier this year that sought to eliminate many of the underlying immigration policies he sees as problematic. “This is tragic if that’s the case.”
Trump was accused of political pandering when he made a wall along the border with Mexico a major part of his presidential campaign platform in 2016. He promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, something that hasn’t happened so far.
Lewis said Republicans are the ones with bad political intentions. He said Trump was using migrant children as political pawns to extract money for a border wall from Democrats in Congress.
“These young children are being used for a political reason, to satisfy a political commitment that he made to his supporters that he would build a wall,” Lewis said. “We don’t need to build a wall. We need to build bridges and reach out to people in other parts of the world.”
Back in Atlanta, Deal said said he’s hopeful the crisis will encourage federal lawmakers to “begin to work cooperatively toward what appears to require a more comprehensive solution to the issue of both legal and illegal immigration.”
As for what he would suggest, Deal wasn’t biting.
“For a governor to propose they have the answer to that would be very presumptuous,” he said, “and I’m not usually a presumptuous governor.”
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Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.