Obama border bill divides Dems

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Centrist and liberal Democrats are battling one another over the emergency spending package for child immigrants at the southern border.

Worried about voter anger over illegal immigration in a midterm election year, centrists want Congress to examine changes to special legal protections granted to immigrants from Central America.

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Republicans argue the changes are necessary to stop the wave of child immigrants overwhelming officials at the border. But the changes are hotly opposed by powerful liberals, including Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who worry they could put children from Central America in jeopardy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has sided with the liberals and senior members of his caucus, agreeing that the $3.7 billion in emergency spending should not include policy changes empowering the administration to deport unaccompanied minors more quickly.

But centrist Democrats are pressing Reid to give ground.

“Just a clean 3.7 [billion]? No, I think we have to make sure we have the direction we’re going to spend that,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), when asked if he would vote for a spending bill that did not make policy changes.

The legal protections critics say are ensconced in the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act have made it extremely costly to handle minors from Central America who cross the border illegally.

A Democratic aide said these children are often given access to a lawyer, a counselor and a translator, which can swell the cost of processing one child to $250 to $1000 per day.

Sen. Tom Carper (D) said the funding and the policy changes should move together.

“I think they go together,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who is putting the Senate bill together, told colleagues in a floor speech last week that policy changes were not necessary.

She said overhauling the legal protections for minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador would not solve what she argued were the factors causing the mass migration: gang violence in Central America and smugglers who are profiting from bringing kids to Texas. Families often pay so-called “coyotes” thousands of dollars to transport their children through Mexico to escape violence in their home countries.

Reid has sided with Mikulski, Durbin and Leahy.

“There's leeway there [so] that the executive branch of the government doesn't need new legislation,” the Senate leader said this week in response to calls for changing the 2008 trafficking law.

Centrist Democrats, however, say policy changes are appropriate and want to see Reid find common ground with Republicans.

“I’m interested in seeing some of the other proposals around policy changes. I do think there may be some things we can change that help expedite proceedings for some of the people who are here,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who is in the midst of a competitive race in New Hampshire. “It seems to me we ought to be able to find some middle ground here that everybody can agree to.”

Shaheen declined to say whether she would vote for a supplemental spending package that did not include these changes.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), another Democratic centrist, said, “I think we should have the same law on the books for Central America as we have for Canada and Mexico.”

This is a key provision of bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) and centrist Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas). Their bill would treat unaccompanied migrant children from Mexico, Central America or any other country with “equality under the law,” according to a summary provided by Cornyn.

Manchin says he is “very interested” in the Cornyn-Cuellar proposal.

Pro-immigrant advocates say legal parity is a euphemism for subjecting illegal minors from Central America to the same “shotgun proceedings” that Mexicans receive from U.S. border patrol agents.

“What Cornyn and company want to do certainly dramatically changes the right of a young child to make a case before an immigration judge about their credible fear of their life. That in essence is not acceptable,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a leading advocate for not weakening the legal rights of immigrant minors, said in a conference call Friday.

Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.), also in a competitive reelection race, said the call for legal “parity” is a “euphemism for taking away the rights of people who may be victims.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that advocates for immigrants’ rights, said the “shotgun proceedings” consist of “Border Patrol agents in green uniforms with side arms giving cursory interviews to scared kids from Central America.”

Senior administration officials have asked senators to consider a relatively minor change to the law. In a closed-door meeting Wednesday, they requested authority to offer minors from Central America the chance to return home voluntarily and skip what are often drawn-out legal proceedings.

Menendez on Friday argued that is not necessary because the administration already has the power to offer voluntary return trips.

“I believe if you read the law as it is today a Central American child can seek voluntary departure,” he said.

Democratic centrists may latch onto the administration’s proposal, however.

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, said the administration’s request would not go as far as Cornyn-Cuellar.

“I think I could certainly support what the administration is proposing. That’s simply giving the kids who have the discretion to make this kind of decision an option.”