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Media lets Republicans off the hook for their role in family separation

Reporters are quick to accept the GOP's spin about its new immigration proposal.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 29: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., speaks during his weekly news conference in the Capitol on Thursday, June, 29, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 29: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., speaks during his weekly news conference in the Capitol on Thursday, June, 29, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans released an immigration proposal Thursday evening, pitched as a “compromise” between hardliners and moderates — but in reality, the bill makes sweeping changes to the immigration system. And it does not end family separation at the southwest border, as various lawmakers and media outlets contend.

The separation of parents and their children at the U.S.-Mexico border is the byproduct of a new Trump administration policy to criminally prosecute immigrants who cross the border — thus separating parents from their kids when they are taken into custody. There is no law that requires this, despite what the president says. And the proposed GOP bill does not stop the Trump administration from prosecuting asylum-seekers who enter at official ports of entry (legally) or elsewhere (illegally).

“The ‘zero tolerance’ prosecution policy driving the separation of families isn’t addressed in the White House 2.0 bill, so it can’t even begin to claim that it will halt family separation,” said Tom Jawetz, the vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at CAP). “The administration turned on the policy and it needs to turn it off.”

Instead, the GOP bill removes existing legal protections for children in detention, effectively allowing the Trump administration to indefinitely detain families who are awaiting court decisions.

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The reason for confusion stems from the way Republicans themselves are representing the legislation. A summary of the GOP bill released to reporters claims it addresses family separation, which some reporters repeated credulously.

“Accompanied alien minors apprehended at the border must not be separated from their parent or legal guardian while in [the Department of Homeland Security] custody,” tweeted a NBC Capitol Hill reporter on Thursday afternoon.

This gave various news outlets the impression that the GOP bill outlaws family separation. “House GOP Immigration Bill Would End Family Separation At Border,” reads one NPR headline. “The compromise bill would halt the separation of immigrant families” says another Bloomberg article. Axios initially tweeted the bill “prevents children from being separated from their parents at the border” but has since updated its article to more clearly state how the GOP bill addresses family separation.

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Various immigration law experts took to Twitter to point out that, in fact, nothing in the GOP bill outlaws family separation.

The bill does effectively overrule the Flores settlement, a 1997 court agreement outlining a basic set of standards for how kids should be cared for in immigration detention. Republicans call the settlement a loophole, and claim it is actually the reason kids are being separated from their parents — but in reality it simply affords some standards of care for kids in detention. Under the settlement, the government agreed to keep children in the “least restrictive” conditions possible and “detention without unnecessary delay,” after being sued.

As Vox’s Dara Lind points out, the GOP bill includes a provision entitled “Clarification of Standards for Family Detention,” which would allow kids who cross the border with guardians to be detained the same way adults are — which could mean longer detainment time.

“What the bill does do — layered on top of the continuing prosecutions and separations — is allow families in need of protection to be deported much more quickly (though still after separation by prosecution) without due process,” Jawetz told ThinkProgress by email. “And for those families that get a shot at making their claim for protection it allows for prolonged incarceration in large detention facilities run by private prison companies.”

Nothing requires the Trump administration to keep families together while kids are detained. Theoretically, the House bill could end family separation if officials proactively keep families together while they await immigration court proceedings. That could mean the expansion of family detention centers — which isn’t a good solution either, said Kara Lynum, an immigration attorney with Lynum Law Office, who has visited these centers numerous times.

“I don’t want them to move the benchmark to family detention,” Lynum told ThinkProgress. “It seems to be ‘keep families together’ as that’s the goalpost to that’s the solution.”

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This isn’t the first time reporters have taken Republicans at face value when it comes to Trump’s family separation policy. When CBS’ Margaret Brennan interviewed House Republican Mark Meadows (R-NC) in May, she accepted the president’s claim, saying the policy is “law.” On Thursday, various reporters said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) broke with Trump on the policy. But Ryan actually blamed the Flores settlement instead of rightly faulting the “zero tolerance” prosecution policy for separating families.