Border-state lawmakers have begun talks on Capitol Hill to reverse current federal policy on the processing of young immigrants from Central America, a change that could accelerate the return of the children to their home countries.
At least two legislative proposals are being developed, according to congressional aides, one by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) and a separate effort by Arizona’s senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake.
Though details could differ, the goal is the same, aides said — namely, to give the Obama administration the flexibility to more quickly deport thousands of unaccompanied minors who have entered the country illegally across the southwestern border.
The measures could be critical to providing the administration with $3.7 billion in emergency funding that President Obama requested of Congress this week to deal with the humanitarian crisis. Republicans have said they are not likely to approve the funding request without legislative changes to ensure that the administration is able to deport the minors more expeditiously.
But some leading Democrats and immigrant activists are fiercely opposed to changes to a 2008 law that provides broader legal protections to child migrants from countries that do not border the continental United States. They fear that the children would have little chance of avoiding being sent back to dangerous conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where most of the more than 52,000 children apprehended at the border this year are coming from.
Obama has called on Congress to amend the law to help clear a large backlog of children awaiting deportation hearings before immigration judges. But after facing strong opposition from liberal allies, he did not include detailed legislative proposals in his emergency appropriations request.
White House aides said the president remains willing to work with Congress to amend the law. On Wednesday in Dallas, Obama alluded to the issue, saying he told Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) that his administration is interested in gaining new authority “to make sure that we’re sending a strong signal that they can’t simply show up at the border and automatically assume they’re going to be absorbed.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told a Senate panel Thursday that the administration thinks “some type of added discretion on my part would be helpful to address this particular situation.” He added that “right now, what we have in mind is treating migrants from the three Central American countries” the same as children from Mexico and Canada.
In Washington, McCain, Flake, Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) spent an hour on the Senate floor Wednesday denouncing the Obama administration for not having stronger border-control policies. They said they would favor a revision of the 2008 law to make it similar to the way unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Canada are treated, which makes it easier for the children to be deported.
“The only thing that’s going to stop these children from coming is if their parents see planeloads of them coming back to the country of origin,” McCain told reporters Thursday.
The surge of minors across the border — spurred by a large increase from Central America — has forced the Obama administration to scramble for federal resources to provide shelter, medical care and other services for the children.
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires the federal government to move unaccompanied foreign minors who are citizens of non-contiguous countries — those that do not border the United States — out of the custody of the Border Patrol and into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of their apprehension.
The children then must be placed into the least restrictive settings possible — usually under the care of relatives living in the United States — until their immigration court hearings. But the waits can take well over a year because of the processing backlog, and critics of the process contend that many of the immigrants never show up for their hearings.
Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, said the law was written at a time when the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America was far lower. Advocates pressed for legal protections for all child migrants, but lawmakers said that if they were too lenient on children from Mexico, there would be a huge influx because of the shared border with the United States.
Lawmakers struck a compromise that took a tougher stance on Mexico and Canada. At the time, not many children were arriving from Central America. But rising violence and worsening poverty in that region, coupled with rumors of more relaxed U.S. policies, drove the rapid rise in young migrants from that region over the past three years, experts say.
Young and other advocates have argued that lawmakers should provide Mexican children with similar protections to children from other countries, rather than the other way around. The cases of Mexican minors are heard by Border Patrol officials — rather than immigration judges — who make decisions quickly about whether to send the children home or allow them to remain in the country.
“They are defaulting to the lowest common denominator here,” she said.
The Obama administration has said it is sending more immigration judges and asylum lawyers to the region to speed up the court hearings for the migrants, who will be deported if they cannot prove that they are facing persecution at home. Young said her organization would support speeding up the hearings to two to three months and requiring the children to remain in federal custody until their cases are heard.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit this week against the government for failing to provide legal representation for the children during their deportation hearings. And the Congressional Progressive Caucus approved a resolution demanding that the administration put the well-being of the children ahead of efforts to send them home.
“Current laws to protect children should not be repealed, amended or circumvented,” the caucus said.
On Capitol Hill, Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have said they are opposed to overturning the 2008 law. The Central American countries have “no law enforcement to speak of,” Durbin said. “They literally shove the garbage in the middle of streets so people can go through it rather than starve to death. And to think that we’re now returning children to that. . . . Let’s take care that we don’t send them back into a deadly situation.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the children should be “treated as humanely as humanly possible,” but he pledged not to block any legislation from the floor. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) referred to herself Wednesday as a “lioness” when it came to caring for the young immigrants.
“Just don’t mess with the children,” she said. “You want to talk about contiguous, non-contiguous, you can talk about it all day. But give us the money to deal with it.”