Republicans eyeing a run against President Trump in 2020 have eagerly joined the uproar over the treatment of illegal immigrant children at the border.
They seized upon the spectacle of children taken away from parents charged with border jumping and used it as a platform to call the president and the policy shameful and heartless. But political insiders doubted the rhetoric would resonate with Republican primary voters.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has signaled interest in another run, took to Twitter to castigate the man who bested him in the 2016 Republican presidential primary race.
“Children shouldn’t be used as a negotiating tool. @realDonaldTrump should end this heartless policy and Congress should get an immigration deal done that provides for asylum reform, border security and a path to citizenship for Dreamers,” he tweeted.
Other Republican hopefuls followed a similar line of attack.
“Quit separating families. It’s that simple,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has been inching toward a 2020 challenge to Mr. Trump.
He also vented indignation in an online video.
“Let’s get it right. We’re America. We have a big heart. We love people,” he said. “And the end of the day is we don’t want to create an image that we don’t care, because we really do.”
He wasn’t finished.
In a fundraising email to supporters, the governor pledged to take a forceful stand against the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which results in jail for illegal immigrants and temporary separation from their children.
“We can secure our borders without taking actions that are morally wrong and shameful,” Mr. Kaskich said.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said Mr. Bush and others are getting a lot of news media attention for bashing Mr. Trump but shouldn’t expect immigration to help them split the party’s vote in 2020.
“It’s not a wedge issue that can be used in any 2020 party primary scenario. The primary electorate is largely in favor of tougher immigration enforcement policies,” said Mr. Madden, a top campaign adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Mr. Madden pointed to the experience of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination faltered when he argued for an immigration policy with “heart.”
“Just ask Rick Perry about the backlash he received,” said Mr. Madden.
Still, suspicion and animus for Mr. Trump run deep even within the party.
Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said he was inclined to believe news media reports about the cruel treatment of children at the border as opposed to the Trump administration’s claim that federal officials were using an orderly and lawful process of temporary detention.
Mr. Flake chose to leave the Senate rather than face pro-Trump voters in his home state, but that hasn’t stopped him from mulling a presidential run.
Mr. Flake and Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, sent a letter demanding answers from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
“Contrary to what DHS has indicated as proper procedure, we are currently seeing cases where immigrant families seeking asylum are separated after lawfully presenting themselves at a U.S. port of entry,” the senators wrote.
Homeland Security said asylum seekers are not subject to arrest as border jumpers are.
“There are many false stories being reported and we encourage anyone with evidence or facts to contact us so that we can investigate,” tweeted Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton.
Jumping the border has been a crime for decades, but past administrations generally ignored that part of the law and instead treated illegal immigration as a civil matter while trying to deport people.
Deportations have become more difficult as migrants learn how to exploit U.S. laws, prompting the Trump administration to try practices such as zero-tolerance prosecutions.
The illegal immigrants who are jailed for illegal entry usually serve only a couple of days in detention before they are released back into the immigration system. They are supposed to be reunited with their children at that point.
Meanwhile, Democrats lining up to challenge Mr. Trump labored to outdo one another in condemning the zero-tolerance policy.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, a California Democrat jockeying for a 2020 run, demanded that Ms. Nielsen resign for her role overseeing the policy.
“The government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing them apart. And the government should have a commitment to transparency and accountability,” she said. “Under Secretary Nielsen’s tenure, the Department of Homeland Security has a track record of neither. As a result, she must resign.”
Ms. Nielsen stood firmly by the policy.
“We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job. This administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you,” she told the National Sheriffs’ Association meeting in New Orleans.
Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration, called the policy “state-sponsored child abuse.”
Mr. Castro, who also is angling for a presidential run, joined a protest Sunday at a Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat and a favorite of the far left, called treatment of the children immoral.
This is an outrage visited on the American people by Donald Trump, and it must stop,” she said. “If we don’t have Republicans who step up and say the president of the United States must stop taking babies away from their mothers, then the practice will continue. That means it’s on the Republicans’ heads, not just the president but all of the Republicans who won’t step up and do the right thing.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called for an investigation in a tweet Sunday.
“This #FathersDay the separation of children from their parents at the border weighs heavily on our nation’s conscience. I’m calling on the Dept of Homeland Security’s Inspector General to investigate the disgraceful and inhumane tactics used by ICE,” he said.
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
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