PHOENIX — U.S. Sen. John McCain condemned the Trump administration’s practice of separating families in a sharp statement Monday, reflecting a break within Republican ranks on the controversial policy.
Three of Arizona’s five GOP House members have avoided public comments on the "zero tolerance" crackdown at the border that has resulted in an estimated 2,000 children being separated from their families.
By contrast, all four of the state’s U.S. House Democrats have pilloried the practice in recent days.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., also hinted at his dismay in questions about the policy he put to the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
"The administration’s current family separation policy is an affront to the decency of the American people, and contrary to principles and values upon which our nation was founded,” McCain, R-Ariz., said in a blistering tweet Monday evening. “The administration has the power to rescind this policy. It should do so now.”
The family separations have sparked a national outcry and emerged as a searing test of how far Americans are willing to go in their efforts to enforce immigration and border control.
The White House itself has offered conflicting accounts of the policy and the reasons behind it. Officials have alternately — and falsely — blamed Democrats for it, denied there is a separation policy or suggested the policy is intended as a deterrent to reduce illegal immigration.
As the administration founders, congressional Republicans have done what they have often done in other high-profile spasms of controversies involving President Donald Trump: They waited.
Late Monday, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican whose Tucson-based district includes part of the border with Mexico, issued a statement that suggests she doesn't like the separation tactics, but doesn't find fault with the Trump administration.
"We need to enforce our laws in a consistent and humane manner and (Homeland Security) should not have to choose between enforcing the law and keeping children with their parents," she said. "My immigration bill, which I've been working on since last September, fixes this by allowing children to stay with their parents as they undergo due process. I hope we can get a version of my bill out of the House this week and on the President's desk immediately to address many urgent issues like this."
While McSally did not challenge the administration, one of her Democratic opponents in the race for the state's open Senate seat, U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, did.
"The administration's choice to separate families at the border is wrong — they should stop immediately. I'm ready to work with anyone to fix our broken immigration system, secure our border, & protect our communities," she wrote in a tweet.
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., pointed the blame at former President Barack Obama.
"The Obama Admin’s lack of enforcement of our immigration laws is responsible for this crisis," he said in a tweet. "The (Justice Department's) zero-tolerance policy returns to the rule of law & ensures families are no longer lured to our borders with false promises. Elections matter."
McCain and Flake are Republicans who have cast themselves as the conscience of their party as their congressional careers wind down. McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer; Flake is not seeking re-election this year.
"Ensuring the safety and security of young children is a longstanding priority of the American legal system," Flake said. "In asylum cases, it is especially important to keep families together when neither the child nor the parent has violated any laws. Contrary to what (Homeland Security) has indicated as proper procedure, we are currently seeing cases where immigrant families seeking asylum are separated after lawfully presenting themselves at a U.S. port of entry. I believe DHS ought to respond to valid questions concerning asylum processing, including any policies pertaining to the separation of families."
He posed a series of questions for Nielsen that outlined his concerns.
As the separation story gathered steam last week, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., repeatedly hammered the White House for its actions. He elaborated in a statement Monday.
"As children are ripped from their parents’ arms, and mass trials and gross violations of due process permeate the border region, Trump and his henchmen continue their macabre public relations tour to justify their abhorrent policies that attack asylum seekers and innocent children. In the process, Trump has reached a disgusting new low by using asylum seekers and their children as leverage to get his border wall," Grijalva said.
"Current anti-immigrant legislation like the Goodlatte/McSally bill and the Republican ‘compromise’ have nothing to do with the refugee crisis at the southern border. By holding the children seeking asylum hostage, Trump and his baby snatchers are lying to the American people."