WASHINGTON - House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday he opposes the new Trump administration "zero-tolerance" policy of forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.
Ryan said Congress should address the issue with legislation, and a draft of a compromise immigration bill that circulated on Capitol Hill late Thursday would end the practice of dividing families detained at the border.
But Ryan offered no guarantees that the House will pass a bill that ends a policy that has drawn widespread criticism from lawmakers, human rights groups and U.S. Catholic bishops.
"We don't want kids to be separated from their parents," Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters.
Under the policy rolled out in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children stay in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.
The administration's crackdown on families crossing the border has led to a surge in the number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that as a mother of five children and grandmother of nine, the policy was horrendous.
"This is barbaric. This is not what America is. But this is the policy of the Trump administration," she told reporters.
Pelosi dismissed Ryan's argument that Congress must act, insisting that Sessions could unilaterally reverse the policy. Even if legislation were necessary, she said, Ryan could easily bring a stand-alone measure up under expedited procedures to fix the issue.
"They can do it very quickly if they had the intention," Pelosi told reporters.
Republican leaders circulated text of a "discussion draft" that called for $25 billion for a border wall paired with a new immigrant visa that would give DACA recipients a path to permanent residency and eventually citizenship. The text also includes an increase in immigration enforcement officers and language meant to end the practice of separating families detained at the border.
Still, negotiators on both sides of the GOP said they were not ready to endorse the draft.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., praised the bill's "balanced approach" but said it required further study.
"It's all about border security," he said. "It's all about not solving one DACA crisis and then creating another one a decade from now."
And Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a leader of the moderate bloc, said he had made "no final decision yet" on the bill.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said they will gauge support for the bill Friday, adding that President Trump and White House aides are encouraged by the discussions.
"They like what's in the bill," he said. "The president really likes the fact that it fully funds the wall. He hasn't seen all the details yet, but we stayed very close to the four pillars the president initially laid out and worked closely with the administration in putting this agreement together."
Earlier in the day, Ryan told a largely Latino audience that he remains committed to removing the threat of deportation now faced by young undocumented immigrants but stopped short of assuring that the House would pass legislation doing so.
"I want to begin by saying we all share a commitment to fixing this utterly broken immigration system, and we've got to find a way to do this," Ryan, R-Wis., told the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington. "Please know that we believe this."
That repeats pledges of action that Ryan has consistently made - both after President Trump's election, following a campaign where he promised to crack down on illegal immigration, and later after Trump moved to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
But it remains unsettled whether the House can pass a DACA fix. A move by renegade Republican moderates to force votes on bipartisan bills that would likely pass with considerable Democratic support was short-circuited this week by Ryan and other GOP leaders who feared passage of those bills would anger conservative voters in an election year.
Instead, they have agreed to set up votes next week on competing conservative immigration bills. One includes hard-line provisions catering to the House GOP's conservative wing; the other will try to bridge the gap between conservatives and moderates.
In comments to reporters, Ryan said next week's votes were scheduled "to give members the ability to express their positions" - not necessarily to pass a bill through the House.
"Our members felt very, very passionate about having votes on policies they care about, and that is what we are doing," he said. "We won't guarantee passage. I don't know the answer to that. Remember, when I took this job three years ago, I said we'll bring stuff to the floor that may or may not pass. That's how Congress works sometimes."
Ryan added that he hoped the compromise bill would pass: "I think this is a very good compromise. And this can make law, and that's what we ought to be doing ultimately here."
Conservatives remain skeptical of any bill that would offer a "special path" to citizenship to DACA recipients and other "dreamers." Leaders of the conservative bloc said they were waiting to see a final bill before weighing in.
A draft obtained by The Washington Post sketches out how DACA recipients could obtain permanent legal status - and eventually citizenship - under a Republican compromise.
A new immigrant visa would be created, open to DACA recipients and to the children of foreign nationals holding certain temporary visas. Those children must have lived in the United States continuously for 10 years.
After at least six years in temporary legal status, DACA recipients could apply for permanent residency. Those visas would be offset by canceling the existing Diversity Visa Program, which hands out 55,000 visas by lottery each year, and distributed according to a point system awarded, according to the summary, "for things such as education level, age, English proficiency and the salary that an employer is willing to pay."
Author information: Mike DeBonis covers Congress, with a focus on the House, for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.