AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ted Cruz has staged a dramatic about-face on the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policies, laying bare how politically damaging the issue of separating children from parents accused of crossing the border illegally is becoming for Republicans facing voters this fall.
The Texas senator, who has become a frequent ally of President Donald Trump, initially blasted criticism of the White House crackdown.
"When you see Democrats saying, 'Don't separate kids from their parents,' what they're really saying is don't arrest illegal aliens," he said last week
But he's softened substantially, telling reporters in Washington on Tuesday, "All of us are horrified at the images we're seeing." He said he's talked with the White House about legislation he plans to introduce to stop the separations, though its exact language hasn't yet been released.
It is striking that a leading conservative insurgent could flip-flop in a deep-red state where hardline immigration policies are exceedingly popular. But the change underscores the chorus of politicians and civic and religious leaders from both parties across the county who say such measures are unacceptable — even as the Trump administration has vowed to stand by them.
Cruz's push for legislation comes as Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic congressman giving up his seat to challenge Cruz in November, has moved quickly to criticize the family separations and, in the process, raise his national profile. O'Rourke led a Father's Day march to a Texas desert tent city which federal authorities hastily erected to house immigrant children.
"There's an open question right now about who we are and what we stand for and what we're going to do in the face of this injustice and this inhumanity," O'Rourke said by phone.
A former punk rocker, O'Rourke has waged a high energy campaign and often outraised Cruz. He remains a longshot since Texas hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, but family separation may be proving too thorny a topic even for a Republican facing a relatively easy path to midterm re-election.
"The needle that Cruz is trying to thread is he wants to end separation but also maintain rule of law," said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas GOP strategist who added, "He's recognizing that this separation issue is explosive."
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families in April and May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new policy that refers all cases of illegal entry — even those when people crossing sought asylum to remain in the U.S. — for criminal prosecution. The government previously limited prosecution for many family entrants, partly because children aren't charged with a crime and can't be detained with their parents.
Texas is 39 percent Hispanic and has become the epicenter of the debate, with a former warehouse fitted with metal caging in the Rio Grande Valley housing more than 1,000 immigrant children. Roughly 750 miles to the west in the pecan-growing town of Tornillo, near El Paso, more youngsters are being held in the tent encampment where O'Rourke led Sunday's march.
O'Rourke is offering House anti-family separation legislation similar to Democratic-led efforts in the Senate. He's long courted Trump supporters, saying he can understand their frustration with Washington's status quo. But O'Rourke says there's no room for agreement with the White House on this issue.
"President Trump made the decision to take their young children from them, inflicting horrific trauma on those kids and on those parents alike and absolutely undermining our values and our idea of who we are as a country," he said. "But, at this point, it is now the United States of America that is doing this. It is now on all of us to change it."
O'Rourke said the effort won't make him appear soft on crime since existing federal law already stipulates that anyone crossing the U.S. border and seeking asylum not be treated "like common criminals."
"It's not a question of if you're for law and order. We all are," O'Rourke said. "It's following our own laws and also making sure that we're not torturing these families."
Cruz is beginning to echo that sentiment, saying, "We can stop this. The legislation I'm filing this week would prohibit separating families, would mandate that kids should stay with their parents."
He said his bill would double the number of federal immigration judges to ensure that asylum cases are heard within two weeks.
"If the claim is not valid, and many of those coming here illegally don't have valid claims for asylum, then within 14 days that claim should be processed and they should be returned to their home country," Cruz said. "During that expedited process, we can and should keep families together, keep children with their moms and dads and we need to stand up temporary shelters."
Neither Cruz nor O'Rourke's legislation are likely to advance as congressional Republicans continue to grapple with larger immigration packages, which some fierce conservatives are rejecting as "amnesty."
Mackowiak said immigration and border crackdowns rarely are losing issues for Texas Republicans, but family separation "is very uncomfortable for a lot of us."
"Separating families is dicier," he said "even here."