Michigan Republican pushes bill to reunite children, parents separated at border

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Angelica (who didn't want her last name used) enters the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry, where the U.S. and Mexico border meet, with her granddaughter to ask for asylum on June 20, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. The Trump administration created a policy of "zero tolerance" creating confusion for people seeking to reach the United States.

Washington — West Michigan Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga has introduced a bill in Congress to require that federal officials reunite immigrant families separated at the border.

The Family Reunification Act would instruct the Homeland Security secretary and other federal officials to reunite children and parents recently separated at or near the border "as soon as possible," Huizenga said Thursday. 

"While the United States is a nation of laws, we are also a nation of compassion. I am for strengthening our porous border and reforming our broken immigration system," Huizenga said. 

"However, I am not for separating infants and young children from their mothers and fathers. We must take action to right this wrong." 

His legislation comes amid an outcry over family separations at the Southern border. 

Under pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesdayreversing his administration's policy of removing the immigrant children from their parents as they tried to illegally cross into the country.

But it remained unclear, after Trump's order, if and when families already separated would be reunited, with children as young as 8 months old in shelters in Michigan and elsewhere around the country.  

"There was ambiguity as to what was happening. DHS was saying that they did not have an immediate plans to then reunify the kids that had been separated already," Huizenga said in an interview.

"That’s what prompted me to say: Look, we can’t have that situation either. We have to have them move toward reunification."

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga

Huizenga and bipartisan lawmakers from Michigan are also asking the Trump administration for details on the whereabouts and welfare of migrant children separated from their families, as well as procedures for expediting family reunification. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearboarn, led a letter signed by all female House Democrats this week specifically seeking information about the young girls, as the government has released photos of only boys housed at detention centers and no girls.  

"The American people have a right to know what is being done to ensure that these young girls are safe and being properly cared for," Dingell wrote with Rep. Annie Kuster, D-New Hampshire.

Huizenga's bill directs the Homeland Security secretary, in conjunction with the attorney general and secretary of Health and Human Services Department, to use "all necessary means" to ensure that each unaccompanied alien child removed from the custody of a parent or legal guardian within 100 miles of the border be reunited with the parent or legal guardian "at the earliest possible date."

The bill carves out exceptions for cases such as when parental rights have been terminated or when a child is a victim of trafficking. 

The U.S. House earlier Thursday voted down a hard-line immigration bill and postponed until next week a vote on compromise immigration legislation crafted by GOP leadership. 

Huizenga said he wanted to ensure that, if neither of the broader immigration bills passes the House, lawmakers would have a piece of legislation to go to address reunification.

Trump at the White House on Thursday defended his “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all immigrants caught illegally crossing the border.

He said "this isn't the Trump administration" and continued to falsely blame the situation on Democrats, although his administration instituted the new policy. 

"I signed a very good executive order yesterday, but that's only limited — no matter how you cut it, it leads to separation ultimately," Trump told reporters before a Cabinet meeting. 

"I'm directing HHS, DHS and DOJ to work together to keep illegal immigrant families together during the immigration process and to reunite these previously separated groups."

Huizenga said he and his staff have been in touch in recent weeks with Bethany Christian Services, which has offices in his district and has helped 50 migrant children find care and shelter in Michigan. 

"There’s a lot of contradictory info out there, so we've been trying to weed through it all and separate fact from myth," Huizenga said.

"I just came to the conclusion that what we’re seeing is not acceptable, and we needed to address that."

Bethany said Wednesday it had tracked down nearly all the parents of the 50 children — most of whom had been arrested and are being held in detention centers near the Southern border.

“I know we have children who are eager to hear from their parents," Dona Abbott, director of Bethany’s refugee and immigrant programs, told The Detroit News. 

Abbott said the reunions might delayed as the government works to set up centers where the families can live together while awaiting word on their asylum applications.

Francis X. Donnelly contributed