As controversy about immigrant family separation at the United States-Mexico border dominated the national conversation last week, the responses of Texarkana's representatives in Congress ranged from silence to partisan attacks, with most calling for hardline law enforcement to be tempered with compassion for children.
Widespread outrage followed media scrutiny of the Trump administration's recently enacted zero-tolerance immigration policy, which promises to prosecute all who cross the border illegally, including asylum-seekers.
The administration asserted that because such migrants are being detained as criminal suspects, its only option was to separate them from any children traveling with them—a position that would change within days. As a result, thousands of children including babies and toddlers are being held apart from their parents and other adult loved relatives.
Many saw the policy as cruel, a backlash gained energy early in the week, and members of the two Texarkanas' congressional delegations began to speak out.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican who represents Arkansas' 4th Congressional District, on Tuesday issued a statement calling for families to be kept together.
"Our customs and immigration laws must be enforced with the humane and ethical principles that make our country strong. Children should not be used as pawns under any circumstance. I urge enforcement officials to utilize family detention facilities where appropriate and only separate children from their families when there is clear and eminent danger to the child if they remain with the adults who transported them across the border. This is another example that highlights the importance of border security and preventing illegal crossings," Westerman stated.
Also on Tuesday, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., co-signed a letter with 12 other Republican senators asking the Justice Department to temporarily halt the zero-tolerance policy.
"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. We therefore ask you to work with the relevant Administration officials to stop the separation of families pursuant to the Department's zero tolerance policy while Congress works out a solution that enables faster processing of individuals who enter our country illegally. We 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 stated.
Noted immigration hardliner Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., sounded a similar note while lashing out at Democrats and blaming liberals for causing the problem.
"Dems' Keep Families Together Act is better called the Child Trafficking Encouragement Act. Show up at border with a minor & call him your child, then you get released into the US! Children will be abducted & sold to drug cartels & slave-traders as a free ticket into US," Cotton tweeted Tuesday.
He went on in a radio interview with host Hugh Hewitt that day, according to a transcript published by the Arkansas Times.
"Democrats have now supported a bill by Dianne Feinstein that says children at the border are literally a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you show up at our border, you have to be released into our country never to be seen again.
"The Trump administration's hands are tied by liberal judges and Democrats who have ruled over the years that children at the border can't be detained for more than 20 days. That's why when their parents bring them to the border, or just as likely, kidnap them or buy them from human traffickers to pose as parents at the border, the parent is taken into custody, the child can't be detained for more than 20 days, and therefore placed with a relative or placed in a kind of foster care.
"All we need to do, Hugh, is overturn the so-called Flores Settlement, allow families to be held at the border, provide a little bit of extra money to the military and DHS for family housing units while those claims are adjudicated," Cotton said.
Texas' senators, both Republicans, also made statements Tuesday.
"Opposition to zero-tolerance to illegal immigration = tolerance of illegal immigration without a plan to enforce the law. We will provide both a way to enforce the law and a humane and compassionate family unification proposal for Congress to vote on soon," Sen. John Cornyn tweeted.
"The answer to this current situation is a solution that allows us to both enforce the law and keep families together. They don't have to be mutually exclusive," he added during a speech on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ted Cruz also called for humane law enforcement in a series of tweets introducing his own bill as a solution.
"Over the past few weeks, Americans have been rightly horrified by the images and videos coming from our southern border, where tearful children are being pulled away from their mothers and fathers. There is no doubt that this must stop, immediately. We can come together to fix this problem. The Protect Kids and Parents Act focuses on solving the current problem: it stops family separation, except in situations where it is necessary to protect the health and well-being of the child, and doubles the number of immigration judges and expedites the process by which we handle asylum claims by families who enter our country," Cruz stated.
Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe, who represents Texas' 4th Congressional District, did not comment on the family-separation issue. Asked what Ratcliffe's position is, his spokesperson said he would be issuing a statement soon. He had not done so by presstime Friday.
On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order directing the departments of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security to create family detention centers and keep immigrant families together while their cases are adjudicated.
By Thursday, a group of senators, including all four of Arkansas' and Texas', had introduced legislation called the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act, "which keeps families together while ensuring the integrity of our nation's immigration laws," according to a statement announcing the measure.
"Families will be ensured access to suitable living accommodations, food and water, medical assistance, and any other service necessary for their care," according to the statement.
The bill would also cause migrant children "to be removed from an individual who presents a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the child." It would fund the hiring of 225 new immigration judges to help expedite adjudication and "requires the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to prioritize resolving the cases of children and families in family residential centers."
Cornyn and Cruz toured two Weslaco, Texas, child immigrant detention centers on Friday.
"I would say there's a strong consensus that kids need to stay with their parents," Cruz told reporters after the tours and a meeting with local officials.
On Twitter: @RealKarlRichter