Prominent Iowa Republicans and Democrats, with a significant exception, called Tuesday for Washington to end what one described as the “horrific” practice carried out by the Trump administration of separating children from their parents as federal agents enforce immigration laws along the southern U.S. border.
National media reports, some including images contributed by the federal government itself, have shown children on mattresses on the floors of warehouse-style detention centers.
More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents along the border in a six-week period that began in mid-April, according to government figures.
Federal officials insist the children are being cared for, but advocates worry over the potential for long-term mental and emotional harm.
The investigative news organization ProPublica published what it said was an audio recording from inside one of the federal detention facilities. One girl is heard pleading for permission to call her aunt so she can leave; another keeps crying for her father.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds decried the practice and called on President Donald Trump and Congress to solve it.
“Children are being used as pawns in this situation, and I don’t think that’s the right thing to happen. I’m a mom and a grandma,” Reynolds said in her weekly meeting with Iowa reporters. “It’s horrific that children are being used as a pawn in this situation.”
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Governors in eight states announced this week they will withhold or recall National Guard troops from border states over their objections. But Reynolds initially hedged when asked Tuesday whether she would commit the Iowa National Guard. Her office later said the governor would not use state resources, including the National Guard, to separate children from their parents on the border.
In the U.S. Senate, Republican Chuck Grassley said he believes a legislative fix can stop the separations and allow families to stay together while their immigration cases proceed.
But he declined to back a proposal from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to temporarily stop the separations while a solution is worked out.
“Abrupt temporary changes to enforcement practices of federal law could cause further chaos on the border at a time when law enforcement and those seeking asylum need certainty,” a Grassley spokesman, Michael Zona, said.
Leigh Claffey, a spokeswoman for Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said the senator “believes that we absolutely need to treat children in our immigration system with compassion and utmost care.” But she did not directly say whether Ernst believes there should be a pause in the practice of separating families.
“Senator Ernst is currently working with her colleagues and reviewing proposals as they become available to find a solution for our immigration system and illegal immigrant families,” Claffey said.
Trump did find support from a prominent Iowa Republican — U.S. Rep. Steve King, known as an immigration hard-liner who supports building a border wall.
King compared the detention centers for children to playgrounds.
“There’s nothing cruel about this. These are children that are cared for, with better care than they get in their home country. They get everything they need. They get a warm and comfortable place to sleep,” he said Tuesday in an impromptu interview with TMZ on the way to a vehicle.
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King, who cited seeing an immigrant detention center for minors as recently in 2014, pushed back against media reports describing the holding areas as cages.
“It was not a cage. It was a great big area ... It would be the same kind of (chain link) fence that is on a playground,” King said in the video interview, which he shared in a tweet on his official Twitter account.
Kevin Techau and Nick Klinefeldt, who last served as Iowa’s U.S. attorneys under the Obama administration, signed on with a group of about 70 former U.S. attorneys urging Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his zero-tolerance immigration policy.
“We write as former United States Attorneys who have served under both Republican and Democratic Presidents. Like the majority of Americans, we have been horrified by the images and stories of children torn from their families along our nation’s Southwest Border. And like a majority of Americans, we are appalled that your Zero Tolerance policy has resulted in the unnecessary trauma and suffering of innocent children,” the group’s letter states.
Democratic state Attorney General Tom Miller joined 20 colleagues from around the county also calling on Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to end the practice.
“Put simply, the deliberate separation of children and their parents who seek lawful asylum in America is wrong,” their letter reads.
Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau, Ed Tibbetts of the Quad City Times and Alexandra Olsen of The Gazette contributed.