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Trump defiant as border crisis escalates, prepares to lobby House GOP on immigration bills

President Donald Trump at the National Federation of Independent Business anniversary celebration, where he spoke about immigration, at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, June 19, 2018. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Copyright 2018)

WASHINGTON - As he prepared to meet with anxious Republicans on Capitol Hill, President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his administration's policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border and demanded that Congress produce comprehensive immigration legislation to address what he called a "massive crisis."

Trump said he plans to make changes to whatever immigration measure emerges from the House, although his aides have said he would sign both bills under consideration or, perhaps, a narrower fix that immediately addresses the family separations.

Trump called on Congress to authorize the government "to detain and promptly remove families together as a unit," which he said was "the only solution to the border crisis." And he went on to mock current security measures at the borders as insufficient and castigated the immigration court system as corrupt, appearing to reject a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz , R-Texas, that would keep migrant families intact in part by increasing the number of immigration court personnel.

"We have to have a real border, not judges," Trump said during a midday speech to the National Federation of Independent Business. "Thousands and thousands of judges they want to hire. Who are these people? . . . Seriously, what country does it? They said, 'Sir, we'd like to hire about 5,000 or 6,000 more judges.' Five thousand or 6,000. Now, can you imagine the graft that must take place?"

In remarks before a gathering of business owners in Washington, Trump argued that undocumented immigrants could "game the system" by taking counsel from immigration lawyers and reading statements that are prepared for them.

"They have professional lawyers," Trump said. "Some are for good. Others are do-gooders and others are bad people. And they tell these people exactly what to say. They say, 'Say the following.' They write it down. 'I am being harmed in my country, my country is extremely dangerous, I fear for my life.' . . . In a way, that's cheating."

Trump is scheduled to visit House Republicans at the Capitol on Tuesday evening to lobby them on broad immigration legislation that would include language aimed at ending the separations while also providing billions of dollars for his long-sought border wall and other security priorities.

"We have a House that's getting ready to finalize an immigration package that they're going to brief me on later, and that I'm going to make changes to," Trump said. "We have one chance to get it right."

In rebuffing Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) emerged from the weekly GOP meeting and said, "All of the members of the Republican conference support a plan that keeps families together while their immigration status is determined."

Republicans are drafting narrow legislation to address the issue of family separations. GOP senators are coalescing around a broad framework that would also allow families to be detained together and reworking the docket of immigration cases so those families are sent to the front of the line of migrants waiting for their court hearing.

McConnell said he hoped the Senate could pass such a bill by the end of the week.

Trump and top administration officials are unwilling - at the moment, at least - to unilaterally reverse its separation policy. The president seemed especially animated in his speech before business owners and agitated about the way his administration's enforcement of its family separation policy is being portrayed in the media.

"They are helping these smugglers and these traffickers like nobody would believe," Trump said of the news media. "They know it. They know exactly what they're doing, and it should be stopped, because what's going on is very unfair to the people of our country, and they violate the law. People that come in violate the law. They endanger their children in the process, and frankly, they endanger all of our children."

Congress could represent the best opportunity to bring an end to the turmoil sparked by the new "zero tolerance" enforcement effort at the border. Pursuing a targeted fix to family separations would represent a rebuke to a president who has hinted in recent days that only a broader bill that included the border wall and other enforcement measures would pass muster.

The Department of Homeland Security has said 2,342 children have been separated from their parents since last month.

As the numbers have mounted, stories of parents in despair and images of children held in chain-link cages have prompted a stream of Republican lawmakers to break with the president and call for a halt to the policy while Congress pursues a solution.

"The administration should end that new policy immediately while Congress works with the president on a bipartisan immigration solution that secures the border, provides a status for those already here and prevents a humanitarian crisis at the border," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Tuesday.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas, the second-ranking Republican senator who is crafting the Senate bill, said his legislation would "keep families together while we expedite their ability to appear before an immigration judge" and would detain them in a "humane, safe and secure facility" in the interim.

The legislation would mark one of the rare times in Trump's presidency that Republicans have challenged him, and comes five months before midterm elections where GOP control of Congress is at stake.

In the House, a prominent conservative leader introduced another stand-alone bill intended as an alternative if the more-sweeping bills set for House votes this week fail.

"It takes out some of the more controversial issues like 'sanctuary cities,' the wall, DACA, and it keeps it very narrow," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said in a morning Fox News Channel interview. The bill, however, retains some elements that Democrats oppose, including provisions making it harder for migrants to claim asylum at the border.

Trump repeated his false claim Tuesday that Democrats were responsible for the separation of parents from children consistent with the "zero-tolerance" policy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced with fanfare this year.

"Democrats are the problem," Trump tweeted. "They don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can't win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!"

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., fired back during a speech on the Senate floor, saying Trump was "ignoring reality" with his claims that Democrats were responsible for family separations and that a change in law is needed.

"As commentator after commentator - Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative - has said: President Trump is simply not telling the truth and in a cowardly way," Schumer said. "No law - no law - requires the separation of families at the border. That's just not true."

While Republicans scrambled to craft legislation, it was not clear whether Democrats would support the measure. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Tuesday that he and other Democrats would object to any modification of an existing court settlement that limits the detention of migrant children held by federal authorities.

Democrats, Merkley said, "are not going to try to overturn a court decision that was designed to protect kids."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.. has presented her own plan that would halt family separations. All 49 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus support it. No Republicans have signed on yet.

Elsewhere in the Senate, Republicans were seeking to ramp up pressure to address family separations. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, plans to send a letter to the Justice Department calling for a pause on separations until Congress can pass a legislative fix, his office said.

McConnell declined to endorse such a pause on separations Tuesday, saying that the practice "requires a legislative solution."

Trump's upcoming remarks to the House Republican Conference come days before lawmakers will vote on a pair of Republican bills meant to address the uncertain legal status of "dreamers" - young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children - after Trump moved last year to cancel the Obama administration program that protected them from deportation.

But the immigration debate has now become consumed by the consequences of the Trump administration's border policy.

Top GOP leaders have spoken out against the separations, including the head of the party's national House campaign organization. Polls released Monday by CNN and Quinnipiac University showed Americans oppose the policy by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

Even more legal challenges to the administration's policy arose Tuesday, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said his state would sue the Trump administration over the family separation practice. The American Civil Liberties Union is already pursuing a nationwide class action lawsuit in San Diego.

Meanwhile, a second Republican governor - Larry Hogan of Maryland - announced Tuesday that he would not deploy National Guard resources to the border until the Trump administration stops separating migrant children from their parents as part of their criminal prosecution efforts.

"Immigration enforcement efforts should focus on criminals, not separating innocent children from their families," Hogan said in a tweet.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) acted similarly Monday, saying he was scrapping plans to send National Guard assets to the border because of the separation policy.

A defiant White House continues to defend the policy with a wide variety of sometimes contradictory rationales. Trump has persistently and falsely blamed the policy on Democrats while warning of an existential threat from illegal immigrants.

"If you don't have Borders, you don't have a Country!" he tweeted Tuesday.

But other White House officials have made a policy case for the separations. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters Monday that her department is merely enforcing existing laws and blamed immigrant parents for having "put their children at risk."

"Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it," she said. "Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States."

Two previous presidents operating under the same laws - a Republican and a Democrat - and both generally refrained from separating families at the border. Some Trump administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, have openly cast the separation policy as a deterrent to future illegal immigration.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) used an unrelated House hearing Tuesday morning to make an impassioned plea to his Republican colleagues to convince Trump to abandon the use of "child internment camps."

"I'm talking directly to my Republican colleagues: You need to stand up to President Trump," Cummings said at the outset of a hearing about a Justice Department review of its handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. "We need you to tell him to abandon this policy. . . . We need you to stand up for those children."

Other Republicans have generally accepted the premise that legislation is necessary.

"I think the law needs to be changed so that children can be kept with their parents," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Tuesday in a CNN interview, calling for passage of the "consensus" immigration bill he helped negotiate with other House Republicans.

The question is whether any immigration legislation can possibly pass the House this week - let alone the Senate, where Democrats have more leverage.

The two bills set for a House vote this week would both address the status of dreamers, as well as provide funding for the border wall that Trump has long demanded.

Both bills are expected to include language meant to address the family separations - in short, by allowing the Trump administration to keep families together in detention. After critics of the separation policy said language in a draft bill circulated last week would do nothing to compel the Trump administration to change its practice, Republicans have moved to rework the provision.

According to a GOP aide familiar with the new language, which is set to be released Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security would be required to keep families together, even when a parent is charged with the misdemeanor crime of illegally entering the U.S., and would also remove an existing 20-day cap on custody for accompanied children. The bill, the aide said, would also allow DHS to use the $7 billion appropriated in the bill for border technology to house families.

The two bills differ in several other ways, however. One takes a more aggressive approach to immigration enforcement - for instance, requiring employers to screen their workers for legal work status using the federal "E-Verify" database - and does not guarantee dreamers a path to permanent legal residency. The other, which has been written to garner more Republican votes, omits some of the hard-line measures and offers dreamers a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

Neither bill is supported by Democrats, and it is unclear whether they have the support of enough Republicans to pass the House. Two conservative lawmakers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their deliberations said numerous House members are wary that the GOP compromise bill omits the E-Verify requirement and that it could give the parents of dreamers an indirect path to U.S. citizenship.

Further raising doubts among conservative Republicans, the lawmakers said, is that the bill is all but dead on arrival in the Senate, where Schumer on Monday called it a "sham of a bill" that "holds Dreamers and kids who have been separated from their parents hostage in order to cut legal immigration and enact the hard right's immigration agenda."

Authors information: John Wagner is a national reporter who leads The Post's new breaking political news team. Mike DeBonis covers Congress, with a focus on the House, for The Washington Post. Philip Rucker is the White House Bureau Chief for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan, Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.