Texas lawmakers unveil bipartisan fix to child immigrant crisis at border


FILE - Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

In what may present a path toward legislative action on the overflow of child immigrants at the southern border, Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, both of Texas, will on Tuesday introduce a bill that would amend the 2008 law that many critics believe is hampering efforts to address the humanitarian crisis.

Their proposal, titled the HUMANE Act, would require that children who are caught immigrating illegally from non-contiguous countries -- such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where most of those currently crossing the border are coming from -- be given a full hearing within seven days of their detention. That would hasten the timeline that could ultimately lead to their deportation.

Top Republicans have stressed that rewriting that law is a crucial element in stemming the border influx. Some 57,000 children have crossed the border illegally since October.

"Unless we do something like what Henry and I are proposing, those numbers are going to keep going up," Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, told reporters on Monday night. "This is a growing problem."

(Related: Border politics scrambling the politics of immigration)

The Cornyn/Cuellar bill would amend the 2008 sex trafficking law that grants migrant children from Central and South America additional legal protections, requiring that any child from a non-continuous state taken into custody be held for three days and then granted an immigration hearing that is often scheduled well into the future. Many of those immigrant children are then reunited with family members in the U.S. and never show up for their hearings.

In contrast, children caught immigrating illegally from Mexico can be immediately returned to their home country once it is determined that they do not meet the standard for refugee status.

"The politics are complicated," Cornyn said. "What we're trying to do is solve the problem."

The legislation, with the lawmakers say they hope to add to an emergency aid bill to provide President Obama with at least some of the funding he has requested, is likely to face some resistance from Democrats, many of whom have said that they would be wary of any fix that would mean deporting these children more quickly.

However, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled during her weekly press conference last week that altering the 2008 law would not necessarily be a deal breaker.

"What's important right now -- time is important, and time means if we can pass this very soon," Pelosi said Wednesday. "If that's the path that they take, as long as we have the supplemental to have the due process, to have judges, to expedite the proceedings, then, you know, let's mitigate for that change with increased resources for due process and for more judges."

The proposal comes as a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds widespread public disapproval of the way Obama and Republicans in Congress are handling the problem. The border crisis has quickly become a Washington flashpoint ahead of the midterm elections in November, with Republicans charging that the president’s immigration policies helped lead to it.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that administration officials had been in touch with members of Congress about ways to deal with the issue, but he said he did not have any information about whether they had spoken specifically with Cornyn or Cuellar on their legislation.

"We'll review their legislation when they introduce it," Earnest said. "We certainly would welcome constructive engagement from Republicans. After all, there's been a lot of talk from Republicans about how urgent this situation is but not a lot of action."

Cornyn and Cuellar both said they have not had detailed conversations with the White House, but added that they've spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Both praised him and said they believe he truly understands what action is needed.

Cuellar told reporters on Monday night that he has also discussed with proposed legislation with House Republicans who are leading the working group to address the issue..

"Its got to be a bipartisan situation," Cuellar said. "There are long-term and short-term goals that we have to look at and one of the short term is this humanitarian crisis."

It remains to be seen if congressional Republicans will be willing to approve an emergency appropriations bill. Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding, an amount that several top GOP lawmakers signaled was unlikely to beapproved by the Republican-controlled House. The House could, however, introduce a bill authorizing a smaller amount of appropriation spending -- likely with tight controls and specifications about how that money will be spent.

 

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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