Pelosi: Tweaks 'not a deal-breaker'

Greg Nash

Democrats are prepared to accept some changes to a Bush-era child trafficking law as Congress struggles with an emergency response to the immigrant crisis at the southern border, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday.

“I don't think it should be a priority … but it's not a deal-breaker,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. “What's important right now [is] time.”

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As Washington policymakers craft a legislative response to the crisis, GOP leaders, the White House, and at least one congressional Democrat are calling for changes to a 2008 law to make it as easier to send the Central American children who are illegally crossing the border back home. 

Designed to battle sex trafficking, that law bars authorities from quickly deporting unaccompanied children arriving from countries other than Mexico or Canada. Instead, those children are afforded certain legal protections designed to ensure they aren't returned to threatening conditions.

With an estimated 52,000 unaccompanied children arriving at the border since October, however, the immigration courts have been overwhelmed, leaving authorities scrambling to house and care for the kids in line for processing.

While expanded authority wasn’t technically included in the administration’s $3.7 billion supplemental funding request, President Obama said Wednesday that he's looking for more powers to expedite the process as part of that package.

“What we're looking in the supplemental [funding bill[ is some flexibility in terms of being able to preserve the due process rights of individuals who come in, but also to make sure that we’re sending a strong signal that they can’t simply show up at the border and automatically assume that they’re going to be absorbed,” he said during a visit to Dallas.

The White House asked congressional leaders to consider changes to the law in a request sent to Capitol Hill last week, but officials have taken pains to say they’re willing to discuss the possible changes as Democrats have signaled their reservations about the plan.

Republican leaders also want to change the 2008 law, dubbed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, as a condition of approving new border funding.

“Clearly, we would probably like the language to be similar to what we have with Mexico,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday during a press briefing.

Pelosi agreed the rules affecting immigrant kids should be made consistent but suggested Congress do so by granting Mexican children the same legal protections afforded those migrating from the Central American countries.

“Quite frankly, if they wanted to make it uniform, I would rather that they treated the Mexican kids the way that they treated the noncontiguous country kids,” she said.

Still, she said she's willing to go along with changes to the law for the sake of passing the emergency help quickly.

“If that's the face-saver for them [Republicans], let them have the face-saver,” she said. “But let us have the resources to do what we have to do.”

Pelosi's office was quick to clarify that she won't accept any proposals that erode legal protections for the migrants.

"If any changes to the 2008 law are made, they must ensure due process for these children," spokesman Drew Hammill said in an email.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are drafting legislation that would extend more powers to Border Patrol agents to facilitate "voluntary returns" in dealings with the Central American migrants.

Cuellar emphasized Thursday that all the asylum and “credible fear” protections would remain in place under his bill. But applying the rules for Mexicans and Canadians to the Central American migrants, he argued, would go a long way toward fixing the problem.

“Why is there a difference for contiguous and noncontiguous countries?” he asked on CNN's "New Day" program. “Let's go ahead and treat every country the same the way we treat Mexico and Canada.”

Not all Democrats are so open to the idea of rolling back the automatic due process protections under the current law. 

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said Wednesday that he has “serious questions” about Obama’s proposal, and will vote for the funding only if it doesn't “weaken the right that the children have to their day in court, because some of them we may just return them to death and to murder.”

“We're going to ask the president what he plans to do with the $4 billion,” Gutiérrez said on CNN's "Crossfire." “We really don't know [and] I have some serious questions.”

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), head of the House Democratic Caucus, has also said he'll oppose any changes that lessen the legal protections for the children.

“I haven't heard anyone proposing that we undermine due process for children,” he said Wednesday. “If that's what they mean by changes in the law, then I would be absolutely against it.”

— This story was updated at 3:40 p.m.