Republicans are demanding to speed up deportations to address the surge of Central American children at the U.S.-Mexico border, and a number of Democrats in Congress may be willing to join them.
Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona said they will propose amending a 2008 law, signed by former President George W. Bush, that sought to protect migrant children from human trafficking by placing them in protective custody and granting them court hearings and a lawyer.
The proposal would treat the children the same as Mexican minors attempting to cross into the U.S., many of whom are quickly turned back after an interview by border agents.
“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 said. “Then they will have wasted” the money paid to people to smuggle the children north, he said.
Obama also supports revising the law, though he didn’t include it in the $3.7 billion border-security plan he sent to Congress this week.
A number of Democrats disagree with that approach, though others, including Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have said they support revising the deportation law. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid aren’t rejecting the change out of hand.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, told reporters yesterday he’s not inclined to send children to places other than Mexico. Most are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“Many of these countries that are sending these children are out of control,” he said. “There’s no law enforcement to speak of, they literally shove the garbage in the middle of the streets so people go through it rather than starve to death.”
“Let’s take care that we don’t send them back into a deadly situation,” Durbin said.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border from Oct. 1 through June 15, about double the total in a similar period a year earlier, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported.
McCain and Flake, in a statement, said their proposal would return children to their home countries within hours or days. It would provide more immigration judges and require Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to do more to prevent illegal migration of minors or risk the loss of U.S. aid.
Congress is under pressure to quickly address the situation. At a Senate hearing today, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will run out of money in mid-August.
In a July 7 interview, Manchin said he supports a bill to speed deporting the children. “It’s the simplest, easiest, quickest way” to address the crisis, he said.
Senator Mary Landrieu, chairwoman of the spending panel that oversees the border patrol’s budget, said dealing with delays in deportation hearings is her top priority. She didn’t say whether she backed repealing the 2008 law.
“Until that gets solved I am not going to move on to other issues,” she said. Landrieu faces a tough re-election contest in November in a state Obama lost in 2012.
In a hearing yesterday, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri expressed skepticism about Obama’s plan, questioning how U.S. spending in Central America is being managed to address conditions, including gang activity, that are driving the children north.
“We don’t have any real indicators that the money we are spending down there” is working, McCaskill said. “Maybe what we’re doing is not working very well.”
Obama’s proposal would increase detention and court capacity to speed decisions, while expanding law enforcement and prosecution of criminal networks that smuggle people over the U.S. border. The administration wants to improve temporary housing and care for immigrants while their cases are decided.
Members of both parties are concerned about the cost of Obama’s plan and about changing U.S. laws to address the underlying causes of the migration.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters today that the Republican-led House won’t support the president’s plan in its current form. “I can tell you this, we’re not giving the president a blank check,” he said.
Boehner told fellow Republicans in a closed meeting yesterday that he wants to deal this month with the surge, said a party aide familiar with the talks. Reid said this week that he wants a Senate vote before lawmakers leave for their August break.
Obama has expressed his “willingness to work with Republicans on this,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Austin, Texas, where Obama was raising money for the Democratic National Committee.
Immigration and humanitarian advocates say repealing the 2008 law would deprive children fleeing violence and poverty of their rights to a fair hearing and legal counsel.
Democratic leaders say they may need to accept the new policy to win enough votes for the increased spending, said a Democratic aide who sought anonymity to describe leaders’ views. The question requires some Democrats to choose between a policy they find objectionable and blocking funds the president says he needs to address the border crisis.
A report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that about 60 percent of the child refugees are trying to come to the U.S. because they suffered or faced harm that indicated a “need for international protection.”
The debate over deportations is a reversal from last year, when the Senate passed bipartisan legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Leaders of the Republican-controlled House have said they won’t take up the bill.
McCain said he and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are talking with New York Senator Charles Schumer, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, about resuming talks over a comprehensive immigration plan once the border emergency is under control.