Sen. Mitch McConnell | Photo by Joe Sonka

Despite growing outrage over the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who attempt to cross the Mexican border and seek asylum, Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul have yet to answer questions from the media about whether they support such a policy.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader McConnell declined to take questions from reporters in the Senate hallways, and Paul ducked WDRB reporter Marcus Green at an event in Louisville.

Paul’s spokespersons have declined to return an email from Insider Louisville asking if he supports the administration’s new family separation policy, while McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer replied that “proposals are being considered in Congress that would change current law to prevent the separation of minor children from parents while at the same time deterring illegal immigration.”

However, these current actions being taken are not due to any specific law, but the new zero tolerance policy recently announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he says will act as a deterrent from more immigrants seeking asylum.

Under this new policy, children are now separated from parents turning themselves in at the border for asylum if that is not at a port of entry, as the adults are incarcerated and charged with a misdemeanor. However, at least 150 children have also been separated from adults and detained at actual ports of entry.

Despite the clarity from Sessions, who again defended the policy as a deterrent on Fox News Monday night, President Donald Trump has falsely claimed that children being separated and detained by the Department of Homeland Security is actually the fault of “a horrible law” and congressional Democrats’ unwillingness to pass legislation changing it, despite the party’s minority status in each chamber.

Alternatively, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has claimed that this does not even exist, tweeting that “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

Prominent Republicans have begun to harshly criticize the new policy of the administration, with former first lady Laura Bush calling it “immoral” and comparing it to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Oklahoma called Trump’s new policy “wicked,” while Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called the family separations “cruel,” “tragic” and “not consistent with our values.”

Republican Senators Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker have all stated that Trump can end his family separation policy on his own, while several others have indicated that they will soon file legislation to keep families together while they await court proceedings.

Despite such criticism from Republican senators, none of them have yet signed onto the Keeping Families Together Act sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat. The bill, now co-sponsored by all 49 Democrats in the Senate, would prohibit DHS from separating children from their parents except from extraordinary circumstances involving trafficking indicators and concerns of risk to the child, as well as delay and limit the criminal prosecutions of asylum-seekers.

House Democrats are expected to file their own Keeping Families Together Act on Tuesday afternoon, with Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville as a sponsor.

Yarmuth tweeted on Monday that “the Trump administration’s cruelty is on full display as we watch families being torn apart and children left suffering at our border. To be clear: this is a new policy being implemented by this administration as part of its continued assault on immigrants and immigrant families … President Trump could make a single phone call and end this heartbreaking ordeal today.”

On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the administration would not support a stand-alone bill that ended family separation at the border, but only support legislation that also decreased legal immigration into the United States and boosted funding for a wall along the Mexican border. Democrats have criticized such tactics as holding the separated children at the border as “hostages” in order to gain leverage for their legislative agenda on immigration in Congress.

House Republicans are reportedly working on legislation that would end such family separations, decrease legal immigration, and boost the border wall — and perhaps give legal status to the so-called Dreamers who qualified for the DACA program — but no such bill has been made public as of Tuesday morning.

According to The Associated Press, there were 1,995 children separated from adults at the border from April 19 to May 31. On Tuesday, ProPublica published the audio below of 10 children from Central America at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, crying and begging for their parents and relatives who they had just been separated from.

***** UPDATE 3:00 p.m. *****

Tuesday afternoon, following the meeting of the Senate Republican Caucus, McConnell and Paul finally weighed in on the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.

According to CNN reporter Phil Mattingly, McConnell told reporters after the meeting that Republican senators had a “robust discussion” about legislation to address family separation, and would now reach out to Democrats in order to reach a bipartisan consensus on a bill. He added that such legislation should be narrow and targeted on family separation, and not a broad immigration bill like the one that the administration is now pushing for.

McConnell also said that he is not ready to support Sen. Hatch’s call for Trump to issue a temporary moratorium ceasing the separation of families until Congress acts.

After McConnell’s remarks, Paul issued a statement indicating that he strongly supports “enforcing our immigration laws, securing our border, and protecting our country,” but adding that “at the same time, I oppose the government separating families.”

Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters later in the afternoon that there is no need for legislation, as Trump can end the policy on his own any time he wants.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]