MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 17: In this handout photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center on June 17, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 17: In this handout photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center on June 17, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 17: In this handout photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center on June 17, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Getty Images)

Washington – President Donald Trump’s reversal of his administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border was condemned Wednesday by Connecticut Democrats and immigration advocates in the state.

“Ending family separation would be a welcome and humane step, but the solution cannot be the immoral and unlawful detention and imprisonment of children,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “Family separation cannot be replaced by family incarceration and imprisonment.”

After a firestorm of criticism from everyone from Pope Francis to members of his own party, Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that will end the separation of children from their undocumented parents. The separations are a  result of his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that mandated all undocumented immigrants be detained in federal detention facilities, which are barred from holding children for long periods of time.

Under the executive order, immigrant families will still be detained, but not separated. The order also directed the government’s lawyers to ask for a modification to a 1997 court order, known as the Flores settlement, that currently prohibits the federal government from keeping children in a federal immigration detention facility for more than 20 days.

“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders but we are going to keep the families together,” Trump said as he signed the order. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”

The courts may not agree to modify the Flores settlement, which means the Trump administration may have to find other places to house the detained immigrant families. The Pentagon has been asked to identify military bases that could house them.

Sen. Chris Murphy said the Trump administration has “reached a new moral low.”

“Locking up little kids in cages with their parents is less evil than locking up little kids alone in cages, so I guess I’m glad that the president took this step,” Murphy said. “But the new practice is still inhumane and arguably illegal, so no one should be celebrating today.”

Murphy also said “this week, the Trump administration reached a new moral low, and I’m just glad that millions of people all across the county haven’t lost their moral compass and raised their voices to make sure that these kids at least get reunited with their parents.”

Camila Bortolleto, an immigrant advocate with Connecticut Students for a Dream, called the executive orderan empty, and clearly panicked, response to the heartbreaking images we have been seeing for days of children torn from their parents and placed in cages.”

“The order will not reverse Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy  of criminally prosecuting all immigrants who cross the border,  announced in May 2018,” Borolleto said. “This is a problem he created, which he can choose to end at any time, but today, he has not done so.”

A first-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor that usually carries up to a six-month prison sentence. Repeat entry constitutes a felony and carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.

GOP immigration showdown looms

Before the president took action on Wednesday,  the Trump administration told the country that only Congress could stop the separations.

“Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday. “Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States.”

The DHS said on Tuesday that, since last month,  2,342 children have been separated from their parents. A Health and Human Services official said these children will not be immediately reunited with their families while the adults remain in federal custody during their immigration proceedings.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who calls the family separations “child abuse, plain and simple,” shared other Democrats’ skepticism about the worth of Trump’s executive order.

“Prosecuting families seeking asylum will still lead to families being separated,” she said. “And the incarceration of children and families will take place in facilities that are unsuitable for children under current law.”

The Trump administration still needs to reunite children with their parents —a massive bureaucratic hurdle which I have little faith in this administration carrying out in a timely and orderly fashion,” she said.

DeLauro is part of a growing group of House Democrats who are travelling to McAllen, Texas to inspect federal immigration facilities and visit detained children.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has also joined the trip.

“Obviously it flushed out the fact that the administration had made a policy decision in late April or early May that snowballed,” Courtney said of the president’s executive order.

He said he had visited the border during the George W. Bush presidency, touring a holding area in Nogales, Ariz.

“It was very orderly,” Courtney said. “People weren’t left there for days and criminally prosecuted. And there was none of the drama with the kids. I want to see the contrast, before and after.”

The House is expected to consider an immigration bill considered a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans that would do what Trump’s executive order does – end separations by detaining all family members together.

That bill would also provide a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants while restricting legal immigration, limiting  asylum claims and budgeting  $25 billion for the construction of a border wall and other border security measures.

That bill, however is not guaranteed to pass. Few if any Democrats are expected to support either bill. House Republicans will also consider a more restrictive bill that would limit legal immigration even further, provide more money for President Donald Trump’s border wall and protect young immigrants known as “dreamers” from deportation, but would not give them a path to citizenship. It is less likely to pass than the conservative bill. Few, if any, Democrats are expected to support either bill.

“The immigration bills that House Republicans are calling for votes tomorrow do nothing to resolve the appalling situation at the border and fail to fix our broken immigration system,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.

If either bill is approved by the U.S. House, it is expected to be blocked in the U.S. Senate.

While they supported the president’s move to end the family separations, many Republicans continued to call for Congress to pass legislation that would fix the problem.

“Efforts in Congress to address this issue with legislation are being blocked in the Senate, so the president’s executive order seems to bypass that and I am in favor of it,” said Manny Santos, a Republican running for the 5th District congressional seat. “It still allows strict enforcement of our immigration laws. This does not absolve Congress’s responsibility to codify the process, so subsequent administrations don’t undo it with a stroke of the pen; therefore, I still want legislation to permanently fix this.”

Ruby Corby O’Neill, another Republican hoping to represent the 5th District, said “we should not be separating families at the border.”

“We should not have to choose between enforcing the law or keeping families together,” she said. “Congress writes the laws and the fix should come legislatively, not by Executive Order.  It’s time for Congress to do its job.”

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Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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