By: Mark Sommerhauser of the La Crosse Tribune

Wisconsin Republicans scrambled Tuesday to respond to a rising backlash to President Donald Trump’s controversial policy resulting in thousands of families being separated after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Members of the state’s GOP congressional delegation met with Trump and their colleagues late Tuesday in Washington, D.C., in search of a possible legislative fix.

Some defend policy

Some, such as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh and U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir of Brookfield, have defended the Trump administration’s current policy.

Vukmir’s main GOP rival for Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate nomination, Kevin Nicholson, backed a proposal from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas that would detain together, rather than separating, asylum-seeking families that cross the border illegally. Many are fleeing violence and persecution in Central American countries.

Others, such as Gov. Scott Walker, are ducking the issue altogether.

A Tuesday statement from Nicholson, R-Delafield, blamed the situation on former President Barack Obama, though its immediate cause was Trump’s newly adopted “zero-tolerance” policy on border-crossing families.

“As a father I feel great concern any time I see a child crying out of fear or desperation, anywhere in the world,” Nicholson said.

Asked about the issue Tuesday, Vukmir, R-Brookfield, said that “of course families shouldn’t be separated.” But Vukmir’s campaign declined to say what changes, if any, she thinks should be made to prevent it.

Asked about separating families on a WISN-TV interview that aired Sunday, Vukmir said “I believe that we are a nation of laws and we have to stand up and uphold those laws.”

A Johnson spokesman said Tuesday that he is “working with his colleagues to find a legislative solution to this issue that keeps families together and does not encourage additional illegal immigration.”

‘Fair warning’

In an interview that also aired Sunday on WISN, Johnson said “we put everybody on fair warning” about the consequences of illegally seeking asylum after crossing the border between ports of entry, as many of the families at the center of the current controversy have done.

“You are committing a crime; we are going to prosecute you,” Johnson said in the interview. “When you start prosecuting someone like that, you separate them from their loved ones.”

The Cruz plan backed by Nicholson would increase the number of federal immigration judges, authorize new temporary shelters to detain asylum-seeking families and mandate that families be kept together, absent aggravated criminal conduct or threat of harm to the children.

14-day window proposed

It would create an expedited 14-day window to process and review asylum cases — in which time the asylum-seeker either would be accepted or sent back to their country of origin.

But critics have questioned the plan’s feasibility. Sara McKinnon, a UW-Madison communications professor with expertise in U.S. immigration law and policy, said a 14-day window to review and decide asylum cases seems unrealistic.

“I see 14 days, and that reads to me that a lot of Central American migrants are just going to get a blanket ‘no,’” McKinnon said.

On Monday, Walker declined to comment, saying it’s a federal issue. Some governors, including at least two Republicans, have said they will not send state National Guard troops to the border until the family-separation policy is removed.

Wisconsin announced Monday that about two dozen National Guard troops will travel to Arizona to bolster border security.

Walker said he won’t prevent the state assistance, saying “the work they’re doing doesn’t have anything to do with (the child separation issue).”

Other members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, such as Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menominee Falls, and Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay, issued statements criticizing the Trump administration policy leading to family separations and saying Congress should work to fix the problem.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, issued a statement saying he would meet with Trump and others late Tuesday “to discuss solutions to these problems at our Southern border.” The statement called for addressing “the shortage of family spaces in Immigration and Customs Enforcement shelters” along the Mexico border.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, has said he’s not comfortable with the administration’s current practice of separating families and wants to stop it through legislation.

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 for those seeking 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.

The emerging divisions show how Republicans in Wisconsin are grappling with the same issues as their national counterparts. But GOP officeholders and candidates remain wary of alienating supporters of Trump.

Separation ‘immoral’

Wisconsin Democrats have blasted the Trump administration, calling the family separations immoral.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, traveled to the Mexico border Sunday to view federal immigration facilities and said he was deeply troubled by what he saw.

A spokesman for Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said he supports a newly introduced bill to end family separation at the U.S. border.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison — who either Nicholson or Vukmir will face in November — said in a statement that “tearing families apart and traumatizing children is wrong and immoral.”

“This is an inhumane Trump Administration policy that the President could and should end today,” Baldwin said.

The offices of Reps. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, and Sean Duffy, R-Wausau, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.