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Democrats urge Trump to rescind ‘zero tolerance’ as GOP delays immigration vote

President Trump tried to shift the focus from families separated at the border to families of people killed by undocumented immigrants. But Trump's "zero tolerance" policy continues to be the subject of fierce criticism. Of more than 2,300, 500 migrant kids have been reportedly reunited with parents. John Yang talks to Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor about the state of play in Congress.

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  • John Yang:

    Tonight, the state of play on immigration is anything but clear. Parents arrested at the southern border are still trying to reunite with their children. Congress is still searching for an overall solution. And President Trump is still talking tough.

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

  • President Donald Trump:

    These are the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president sought today to shift the focus from families separated at the border to the families of people killed by undocumented immigrants

  • President Donald Trump:

    They're not separated for days or two days. They are permanently separated, because they were killed by criminal illegal aliens.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    As he has before, he also falsely linked the larger migrant community to those who commit crimes.

  • President Donald Trump:

    You hear it's like they're better people than what we have, than our own citizens. It's not true.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House event followed fierce criticism of the president's zero tolerance policy. It's continued even after he ordered a halt to separating children from their parents, more than 2,300 since early May.

    According to the Associated Press, 500 of the separated children have since been reunited with a family member. But advocates for the others say they're desperately trying to find children who've been relocated to shelters and foster care across the country.

    Federal officials are said to be organizing a centralized reunification process in South Texas. And the Pentagon is preparing to shelter up to 20,000 children and possibly parents at military bases in Texas and Arkansas.

    But at the border in McAllen, Texas, today, Efren Olivares, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said parents have been calling him, frantic to find their children.

  • Efren Olivares:

    It's the same question. When am I going to see my child again?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Olivares says the government separated the families with no plan for how to reunite them later.

  • Efren Olivares:

    So, the children end up at a shelter with the Office of Refugee Settlement. The parents are very likely at an ICE detention facility. Those are two separate systems not designed to communicate with each other, so we're having to do, on the fly, trying to locate the parents, trying to locate the children.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Meanwhile, there's word the U.S. attorney's office in South Texas is dismissing cases against parents who were charged with illegally entering the country and were then separated from their children.

    At the same time, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has said it will continue to refer adults who cross the border illegally for prosecution. Across the country today, Democrats urged President Trump today to rescind the zero tolerance policy.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.:

    I call it a zero humanity policy.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And on the floor of the House, Democrat Ted Lieu of California played a recording obtained by ProPublica. In it, children are heard crying after being separated from their parents.

    A standoff quickly ensued with Republican Karen Handel of Georgia.

  • Rep. Karen Handel, R-Ga.:

    The gentleman will suspend.

  • Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.:

    Why are you trying to prevent the American people from listening to what it sounds like in a detention facility?

  • Rep. Karen Handel, R-Ga.:

    Rule 17 of the House prohibits the use of that device.

  • Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.:

    These are babies and kids in the detention facility.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    All of this comes as Republicans have pushed off a vote on a compromise immigration bill until next week.

    But this morning, on Twitter, the president told Republicans to — quote — "Stop wasting time on immigration until after we elect more senators and congress men and women in the November midterms."

    He went on to say, "We cannot allow our country to be overrun by illegal immigrants, as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief."

    That's likely to make it harder for GOP leaders to win the votes they need. The bill will already be facing tough opposition from those like Representative Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania.

  • Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa.:

    People are taking advantage, and every time you're talking about a pathway to citizenship or allowing people to come, you know what happens. More people come in.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But a fellow immigration hard-liner, Representative Bob Goodlatte says Congress is undeterred by the president's tweets today. He says lawmakers will keep working on a solution.

  • John Yang:

    Yamiche is here now, along with our Capitol Hill correspondent, Lisa Desjardins, to talk about where all this is headed.

    Yamiche, let me start with you.

    Have we gotten any more clarity today about how this executive order is going to be carried out, how these families are going to be reunited?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, federal agencies and families that are trying to be reunited are really facing a labyrinth of government bureaucracy.

    There's really no clear-cut way that these families are going to be reunited. I was asking all day, from the White House to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of reuniting a lot of these families.

    They told me that they just don't know. It took a while to get answers today. Most people wanted to be radio-silent on it. What we know is that, in some cases, when there are groups that are working with these families that have been separated in the past, even before President Trump became very vocal about it, it has usually taken two months to have a child, once you actually locate their family member, to go back into the home.

    The reason why there is that lag is because they're assessing whether the home is safe, whether the child is healthy. But I know of at least one case where two young boys know where their mother is, and it's been eight months, they're still in foster care. And they said that there is complications with their case.

    But the kids is that these kids talk to their mother, but cannot actually go and live with their mother. So, essentially, we're looking at a case where the federal government is really in chaos and there's no clear-cut answers.

  • John Yang:

    Government in chaos.

    Now, Lisa, we know that the Pentagon is being asked to help house these families, but now we hear that their lawyers are being asked to helped prosecute these cases.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    We have some good reporting from our Pentagon producer, Dan Sagalyn, who got from the Department of Defense today that the secretary of defense has approved sending 21 attorneys familiar with criminal prosecutions to help with these border cases.

    They made a point — it's interesting — in their response to him to say they will help with both misdemeanor and felony charges. That's because it's not really clear what the policy is right now, which way these cases are going to go.

  • John Yang:

    And, as all this plays out, what is going on, on the Hill? Is this delay in the vote going to get them any closer to the 218 votes they want, they need?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The Republican leadership hopes so, but I have tell you, John, from my many conversations today, not yet.

    And I don't think the president has helped things by saying perhaps we just blow the whole thing off until after November elections. We will see. This weekend will tell us a lot. But what's happening more vigorously right now in Congress, two things, a series of letters going out to Health and Human Services from Democrats who are putting them out publicly, and Republicans, who are not, asking, what's going on?

    Many of these senators have cases in their states. They're trying to figure out what is happening to families that are in their territory. They're not getting answers, including the committees that oversee Health and Human Services.

    Also happening today, we're seeing a lot, Republicans and Democrats, go to these facilities. We are going to see many of these visits over the weekend. We are going to see protests from these members.

    All of this leading up to what may be the only action we see next week, or not, that immigration vote. There's no date set for that. But it's important to sort of remind viewers what exactly is involved in that bill.

    These are the four pillars that the president had said he wanted. So, just to remind people, at the top of the list is, of course, the idea of a status for dreamers, those people who were brought here as children illegally, money for the border wall, something the president says he eagerly wants, a limit to extended family migration, and then an end to the visa lottery.

    Add to that now a fifth pillar, right, dealing with this child separation issue. In this bill, John, that may come for a vote or not next week is important money, $7 billion to try and house these kids. If this bill doesn't pass, their fate is not clear, nor is it clear where the resources will come to house them.

  • John Yang:

    Yamiche, these are the pillars, these are the principles that the president laid out earlier.

    Has there been any clear guidance from the White House what the president will accept, what he wants out of a bill, what he will sign?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I just got off the phone with a White House source who told me that the president would support whatever bill the Republicans passed, if there's a bill that can be passed in the House.

    The problem is that he's tweeting his frustrations because he doesn't believe that any bill can pass the Senate. He's really frustrated with the Republicans' slim majority in the Senate.

    They also tell me that, if this bill fails, that what the president wants next is a big that deals with a federal court restriction that limits very strictly how immigrant children can be detained.

    It's called Flores Settlement. We have talked about it a bunch on the show. But essentially it's saying that kids really need to be detained in very humane circumstances.

    The president wants a law that would change that. Today was also important because the president went out and kind of went back to his base, he went back to his roots of really criminalizing immigrants.

    He had an event at the White House where he had these family members who had lost loved ones who were killed by undocumented immigrants. And what he was doing there was really pitting the question, are you on the side of these families who he said were permanently separated from their kids, or are you on the side of the kids that are caged that might be temporarily separated?

    He ran on America first, but today was really him taking a big step forward and saying, are you with these American families or with these immigrant families? And it's a question of course that's unanswerable for most people.

  • John Yang:

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins — excuse me — thank you very much.

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