Immigration Holding Facility (copy)

In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a U.S. Border Patrol agent watches as people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, stand in line at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP) 

WASHINGTON — Louisiana Republicans in Congress largely stand behind President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement policy, even as a growing chorus of critics attack the White House’s prosecution decisions that have led to the separation of thousands of migrant families along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Most of the Louisiana Republicans contacted Monday expressed regret over splitting up immigrant families — a move triggered by the Trump administration’s decision to criminally charge in federal courts all asylum-seeking adult parents caught entering the country illegally — but the delegation largely backed the president’s crackdown on illegal immigration at the border.

The growing number of children being taken from families, some of who are being housed in makeshift detention facilities or camps along the border, has created a crisis for the Trump administration. Democrats have railed against the policy as deeply immoral and even some usual Trump allies, including some evangelical Christian leaders, have denounced it.

“Family separation at our borders is cruel and goes against our values as a country,” tweeted Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. “IT MUST STOP!”

The Trump administration has ramped up efforts to prosecute every person illegally coming across the border, a move that’s broken with policies under former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush that handled many asylum-seeking families in civil courts.

Because children can’t be sent to federal jails when their parents are charged — and because federal law and previous court decisions place strict limits on how long children and families can be held in immigration detention — the Trump administration’s no-exceptions approach means parents crossing into the country illegally to claim asylum will be split from their children.

Immigrants can apply for asylum by appearing at an American port-of-entry, something that would avoid breaking federal law and should not result in family separations. But agents are also turning asylum-seekers away at some border crossings, citing a backlog of cases, according to multiple media reports.

Most immigrants charged with first-time illegal entry to the U.S. — a misdemeanor — have their cases resolved within weeks and rarely receive additional jail time. Some are promptly deported but many file claims for asylum, arguing they face a genuine threat of violence in their home countries.

That prompts a lengthy review process, during which the Trump administration appears to insist on holding the asylum-seekers in immigration detention facilities rather than releasing them into the interior of the U.S. to be reunited with their children.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, in a speech Monday to the National Sheriffs Association’s annual conference in New Orleans, voiced broad support for Trump’s immigration policies.

Scalise supports keeping families together by holding children with their parents in immigration detention centers, Lauren Fine, a Scalise spokeswoman, told The Advocate. Federal law and federal court decisions currently prohibit doing so for more than 20 days.

Fine said Scalise will be meeting with Trump on Tuesday to discuss immigration policies and is “working to pass legislation to change these broken laws.”

“I support the zero-tolerance policy,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana. “I believe if you try to cross our border illegally, you should be prosecuted.”

Kennedy, though, said he’d prefer to see the Trump administration lock up families together in immigration detention facilities as their asylum claims wind their way through the overloaded system of immigration courts, a process that can take months or even years.

Kennedy acknowledged detaining families together might violate a 1997 consent decree — known as the Flores settlement — that forbids the government from holding children in immigration detention for more than 20 days, as well as a more recent federal court decision that extended the 20-day rule to families.

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“If somebody challenges us, then we’ll litigate it,” Kennedy said. “Let the kids stay in the detention center (with their parents) until somebody challenges it.”

Fellow Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy called the situation on the border “complicated” and noted that federal officials and Border Patrol agents need to determine if children crossing the border with adults are safe — and whether those claiming to be their parents are so in fact.

Cassidy did not directly address whether he backs the Trump administration’s decision to criminally prosecute every illegal border-crosser, the step that’s triggered the growing number of family separations. But the senator said moving immigration cases much more quickly would obviate the need for prolonged detention.

“The solution is to quickly process families as a unit,” Cassidy said. “Ideally, this is done together with securing the border so that immigration laws can be better enforced.”

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Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, said families shouldn’t be separated — “including American families who have been torn apart by violent crimes perpetrated by illegal immigrants.

“If a family illegally enters this country together, they should be deported together; but providing tough border security measures — like a wall — will discourage people from facing the consequences of breaking our laws,” said Abraham, adding that he hopes Congress this week will pass legislation to strengthen border protections and end some legal immigration programs, such as scaling back or ending the family reunification immigration program. 

Rep. Clay Higgins, a first-term Port Barre Republican who’s made a hard-edged approach to illegal immigration a cornerstone of his political rhetoric, made no apologies for the separation of families coming into the U.S. and praised Trump for “enforcing the law.”

“Anyone subject to arrest is responsible for the collateral damage that their own family will necessarily endure,” Higgins said in a statement. “Illegal immigrants are by definition criminals. If an American citizen commits a crime, they will be separated from their children. There are more than 750,000 incarcerated Americans that are separated from their children. This is no different.”

Higgins also attempted to draw parallels between Trump's "zero tolerance" crackdown and former President Barack Obama's response to a wave of unaccompanied minors — mostly teenagers — who poured across the border in 2014 and 2015, triggering a crisis.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier, said reform of the country’s immigration system is "long overdue" and added that he hoped for bipartisan consensus — something that’s been elusive for years on immigration issues in Congress — to overhaul the system.

Johnson didn’t answer whether he embraced Trump’s "zero tolerance” criminal prosecutions of all those caught entering the country illegally but expressed alarm about the worsening situation on the border and the mounting challenge of protecting arriving children from human traffickers.

“Every parent understands the heartbreak of what is happening at our Southern border, and this highlights the many reasons we must enforce our immigration statutes and uphold the rule of law,” Johnson said. “We are facing a growing crisis, with a lack of adequate resources and facilities to house the masses of illegal immigrants coming through the border.”

Spokespeople for U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, didn’t respond to an email Monday seeking comment on the policy.

In a video posted to his Facebook page last week, Graves endorsed tough prosecutions of those entering the country illegally and tighter rules for asylum-seekers but didn’t address the issue of family separations.

“We need to enforce the law,” Graves said. “If people are coming here illegally, they need to be sent back, they need to be held accountable. We need to disincentivize illegal immigration.”

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.