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Utah House members say Trump backs bill that would resolve separations

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Rep. John Curtis said he had a chance to tell President Donald Trump at the end of his meeting with House Republicans Tuesday that Utahns want immigrant families to be able to stay together at the border.

Curtis said he had a moment with the president, "to look him in the eye, shake his hand" and let him know what his constituents have been saying about the administration's zero tolerance policy that is separating children from their parents.

FILE - Rep. John Curtis, who is running for re-election for the third congressional district, speaks during the Utah Republican Party state convention at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

FILE - Rep. John Curtis, who is running for re-election for the third congressional district, speaks during the Utah Republican Party state convention at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

"I said, 'It's all about families and it's very important to keep families together in Utah,'" Curtis, the newest member of the state's all-GOP congressional delegation, said after the closed-door meeting in the U.S. Capitol.

Trump agreed and acknowledged "many people felt that way," said Curtis, who delivered a similar message to other members of the administration. "I just wanted to make sure they heard from me personally how important this was to Utah."

His exchange with the president comes as Republicans and Democrats, as well as many organizations including churches, have condemned the recently implemented policy that has left anguished children crying out for their parents as they are separated at the border.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement issued Monday that forced separations are harmful to families and encouraged "national leaders to take swift action to correct this situation and seek for rational, compassionate solutions."

Trump, who has repeatedly blamed Democrats for the impact of the administration's policy requiring that border crossing offenses be aggressively prosecuted, was "very positive" about a resolution in his meeting with House Republicans, Curtis said.

The president "was very clear" that he would sign a compromise immigration bill that also deals with border security and the adults who were brought into the country as children illegally, the congressman said.

He said he believed Trump would follow through on ending family separations "if we give him the tools that he needed." The bill could come up for a vote in the House as soon as Thursday, Curtis said.

Utah Rep. Chris Stewart also said the president wanted to see the bill passed.

"I think the president clearly understands that this is something we need to fix," Stewart said, calling the family separation issue "far more complicated than most people want to hear."

He said he believes Trump will "enthusiastically support the bill" that now includes a provision to keep families together in detention facilities while parents await action on asylum requests or charges they have crossed the border illegally.

Stewart said his proposed amendment to the bill to allow for ankle monitors for adults detained at the border who want to avoid being separated from their children is still being considered but could end up being seen as unnecessary.

His Democratic opponent, Shireen Ghorbani, said she supports the proposal, but Jan Garbett, the United Utah Party candidate in the 2nd District, said Tuesday it's "a terrible idea" and called the administration's family separation policy "cruel."

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop said passing the bill, which also includes his provision providing better access to federal lands for border patrol agents, "is the right thing to do." He said "compassion and security do not have to be separate issues."

Utah Rep. Mia Love, who pushed to add language to the compromise bill to address family separations, said in a prepared statement, "We are one step closer to fixing our broken immigration system."

She called splitting up families at the border "a heartbreaking example of why Congress needs to take immediate action," but stopped short of calling the president's policy "horrible," as she did Monday.

As the House readies for a vote, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and 12 other GOP senators are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to suspend the policy of separating immigrant families at the border while Congress works on a solution.

"Although enforcing our immigration laws is an essential responsibility of the federal government, it must be done in a way that is consistent with our values and ordinary human decency," their letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions states.

Sent Tuesday, the letter says that while there are "multiple contributing causes" to the current family separation crisis, the Justice Department's recent institution of a zero tolerance policy is the immediate cause.

"We support the administration's efforts to enforce our immigration laws, but we cannot support implementation of a policy that results in the categorical forced separation of minor children from their parents," the letter says.

It asks Sessions to halt the new policy "while Congress works out a solution that enables faster processing of individuals who enter our country illegally without requiring the forced, inhumane separation of children from their parents."

The letter concludes by saying the senators who signed it "believe a reasonable path forward can be found that accommodates the need to enforce our laws while holding true to other, equally essential values."

The letter was not signed by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said that's because the senator "believes a legislative solution is needed for this problem."

FILE - Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks to the Utah Senate at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

FILE - Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks to the Utah Senate at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

He said Lee is working closely with Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz "on a bill that would keep migrant families together while their asylum cases are adjudicated."

Joining Hatch were Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, John Boozman of Arkansas, Dean Heller of Nevada, Cory Gardner of Colorado, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Hatch, who circulated the letter among his GOP Senate colleagues, said earlier the way the separation is "being handled right now isn't acceptable. It's not American. I think we've got to try to keep families together and do whatever it takes to keep them together."

The letter went to Sessions, rather than to the president, because the "attorney general has taken the lead on implementing the policy and has been the public face of the change," Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said.

Hatch is a staunch supporter of the president.

The Justice Department oversees immigration enforcement for the administration, Whitlock said, "and it was their interpretation of the law that established the zero tolerance policy."

The warehouse-like facility has holding pens made from chain-link fences on the inside separating the immigrants.

US Customs and Border Protection

The warehouse-like facility has holding pens made from chain-link fences on the inside separating the immigrants.

Immigrants are seen here inside a detention center with mattresses and thermal blankets on the floor.

US Customs and Border Protection

Immigrants are seen here inside a detention center with mattresses and thermal blankets on the floor.

That policy has led to the separation of nearly 2,000 children from family members seeking asylum or caught entering the United States illegally at the southern border between April 19 and May 31, according to a recent government report.

Hatch feels that several hundred more families would likely be separated at the border in the time it will take Congress to pass a bill, Whitlock said, adding that the senator "believes that is simply unacceptable."