As the national backlash against the Trump administration policy of family separation continues to grow, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus became the first Texas state official to call on President Trump to end the separation of immigrant families and the detention of children. In a letter addressed to the president and released Tuesday morning, Straus wrote that there are thousands of children being housed in Texas in facilities licensed by the state and that many of the spaces already have requested “variances to exceed their licensed capacities.” Nothing in federal law mandates the separation of children from their parents, Straus noted, and doing so creates trauma for the children and is “worsening the many problems that already plague” the immigration system.
“You have publicly suggested that your administration may end these policies if congressional Democrats agree to some of your other border security objectives and positions,” Straus wrote. “But it is wrong to use these scared, vulnerable children as a negotiating tool. Their suffering should also not be used to deter illegal immigration.”
Straus asked Trump to immediately rescind the “zero tolerance” policy that has led to the family separations and to work with Congress for immigration reform. “This is not a binary choice between rampant crime and tearing families apart,” Straus wrote.
Governor Greg Abbott has been supportive of Trump’s policies in the past, but he has yet to publicly react to the zero tolerance policy that the Trump administration has put into place that mandates that 100 percent of immigrants who enter the country illegally be prosecuted on criminal charges versus misdemeanors. The net effect of this policy has been the separation of parents from their children. More than two thousand children have been separated from their parents in the first six weeks of the policy, many of them in Texas. Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services opened a tent city in Tornillo, outside of El Paso, to accommodate the growing number of children in their custody. And now preparations are being made for a possible second tent city outside of Abilene, near the Dyess Air Force Base.
While Straus serves as a statewide leader, he is elected by members of the House. Before this week, no statewide elected official had publicly weighed in on the family separation policy. But by Monday, several officials began to speak publicly about the issue, which is drawing national condemnation. On Monday U.S. senator John Cornyn said in a speech on the Senate floor that he intended to move legislation preserving the family, and later that day U.S. senator Ted Cruz laid out the specifics of a bill that would do the same. Texas Monthly senior editor R. G. Ratcliffe attempted to ask Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick—who is Trump’s state chairman—about the policy at last weekend’s Republican Party of Texas convention, but communications aide Sherry Sylvester physically blocked the writer from getting close to Patrick. Governor Greg Abbott has also been silent on the subject of family separations.
Late Monday, state representative César Blanco, D–El Paso, called on Abbott to cease the deployment of Texas National Guard to the Rio Grande to aid the Trump administration on border security. That request came soon after Republican Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker’s decision to direct his state’s national guard to not send any assets or troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in light of the family separation policy.
“I am respectfully requesting that you halt certain border security practices and cancel the deployment of our Texas National Guard at the border until this abhorrent and immoral policy of separating families is ended,” Blanco said in a letter to Abbott. Blanco, who is chairman of the Texas House Border Caucus, reminded Abbott of the very point the governor made as attorney general under the Obama administration: “As you know, immigration law and policy falls exclusively under the purview of the federal government. As a state, our hands are generally tied. However, certain state border security policies are intertwined with enforcing immigration law. The deployment of state resources and our state guard to our border directly and indirectly result in the detection and apprehension of some of these asylum seeking migrant families. As a result, these families further fall victim to this administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ and family separation policies. Texas should not be a condoning and willing partner in this practice of separating families.” (Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to queries by Texas Monthly about Blanco’s letter.)
Also late Monday, U.S. senator Ted Cruz announced that he will introduce legislation to halt the family separations, first by authorizing additional shelters to keep asylum-seeking families together while incarcerated. “All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers,” Cruz said. “This must stop. Now.” Cruz proposed increasing the number of federal immigration judges from about 375 to 750; mandating that unauthorized immigrant families be kept together, absent aggravated criminal conduct or threat of harm to the children; and creating an expedited review process that grants asylum within fourteen days and the immediate deportation of those who do not receive an asylum grant. However, Cruz opposed Obama-era policies of allowing asylum seekers to remain free while their cases were considered by federal authorities. Cruz referred to this as the “failed policy of catch and release.”