CONCORD/WASHINGTON, D.C. — Republican congressional candidates are carefully watching the media frenzy surrounding the arrests and detainment of illegal immigrant parents, trying to call for change without being too distant from President Donald Trump ahead of midterm campaigning.
Meanwhile, Democrats see the opportunity to turn the story into a campaign issue. Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised to shoot down immigration legislation this week, which would trade money for a wall along the southern border in exchange for a path to citizenship for foreign nationals.
As images of crying children spread through social media, Republicans in competitive districts in November’s elections issued statements and took to social media to try to tell voters that they did not condone removing children from their parents.
At the same time, many of those Republicans dared not stray too far from Trump and his agenda, given his popularity with his conservative base. However, a backlash has hit the media as Time magazine was forced to retract an altered image it ran on its cover depicting Trump looming over a crying 2-year-old who had not been separated from her parents.
“They’re using [the picture] to symbolize a policy, and that was not the case on this picture,” said Border Patrol Agent Carlos Ruiz, who first encountered the girl’s mother, Sandra Sachez. Ruiz told reporters that he asked Sachez to place the girl down in front of her while he patted the mother down, as is standard procedure. Still, the image became symbolic of children being separated from parents at the border.
Mark Harris, a conservative pastor who upset N.C. Congressman Robert Pettinger in May and trying to win the N.C. District 9 seat outside Charlotte, is one of the politicians trying to address the issue without contributing to the hysteria. When his campaign was contacted by reporters regarding the uproar, he said in a statement he has “a growing concern with what is happening” and urged Congress to act.
“Children must not be separated from their parents unless there is a real threat to the safety of the children or if the parents are involved in serious criminal behavior,” said Harris, who otherwise supports Trump’s policies, including building a border wall between Mexico and the United States.
Republican candidates in suburban districts near Denver, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia and in southern California also came out against the policy, leaving a handful in battleground races who had not done so.
“If you are a congressional Republican, this is a nightmare,” said Joe Brettell, a Republican strategist in Houston. “Wait until the ads start running showing that Republican congressman X supported the tearing of families apart, and that’s when we’ll find out just how strong Republican resolve is on this issue.”
Democrats have seized upon the issue to hammer Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. Every Democrat in the U.S. Senate, even those who face difficult bids for re-election in Trump-friendly states, have signed onto a bill that would overturn the family separation policy.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April that all immigrants should seek to enter at a legal port of entry. If they did not, they risked being apprehended while crossing border illegally and would be criminally prosecuted under the country’s criminal entry statute. As with anyone jailed and charged with a crime, their children would either be released to relatives, remain in custody or be moved into shelters. However, when the children were taken into custody with their parents, they were often reclassified as “unaccompanied minors” leading to a bureaucratic tangle for families and officials.
Meanwhile, advocates for illegal immigrants say family separation is hitting those arrested within the U.S. also as more illegal immigrant ask for hearings when they aren’t as frequently granted bond. Even with the increase in bond hearings, they were no less likely to get bond than under the Obama-administrations practice of “catch and release.” Last year, immigration judges granted bond in 42 percent of cases, similar to the rate in prior years, according to the Reuters analysis.
However, increases in bond hearings requests are extending the average length of detention for illegal immigrants to 63 days, double what it was a year earlier, according to the most recent ICE data.
For example, Arturo Flores, a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant, widower and single father, had been living illegally in Concord for more than 17 years when he was arrested in November 2017 for speeding and driving without a license. ICE set his bond at $12,000.
In January, Judge Michael Baird granted Flores’s request to lower the amount, to $5,000, but it took the family another two months to get the money together. Flores said his health deteriorated during his time in detention, and less than a week after his release in March, he had a stroke and was hospitalized.
“I was very stressed out and worried about my children surviving without their mother or their father,” he said from his home in Concord, where he is waiting for his next hearing in immigration court.
Sean Gallagher, director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in the Atlanta field office, covering Georgia, N.C. and S.C., said the new policy of enforcing the law is helping. He says it has cut through red tape, led to straightforward policy and better communication with other law enforcement agencies.
He said some of his officers were frustrated by Obama-era policies that targeted high-priority immigrants for deportation but ignored others.
Now, Gallagher said, “the policy is really, really clear. It’s that we will make no exceptions.”
The Atlanta field office arrested more than 5,700 noncriminals in 2017, nearly six times as many as the year before and the highest increase in the nation.
Reuters News Service contributed to this report.