House GOP group to recommend changes to immigration law

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Fresh off a trip to Guatemala and Honduras, a House GOP working group on immigration will recommend Tuesday that the conference change a 2008 trafficking law to stop the thousands of immigrant children flooding across the border.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the working group’s leader, will argue that child immigrants from Central America should be subject to the same rules as those from Mexico. A source close to Granger said the group will also advise that National Guard troops be sent to the border, a longstanding demand from Republicans.

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Granger will offer the presentation at a pivotal conference meeting expected to signal the party's direction on the issue.

The 2008 law has emerged as the biggest sticking point between Republicans and Democrats battling over President Obama’s $3.7 billion request for supplemental border funding. 

Under the statute, unaccompanied immigrant children from Mexico or Canada must be screened within 48 hours and sent back unless they are human trafficking victims or have claims for asylum. But children from countries that don't border the U.S. must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and appear at an immigration hearing, which takes more time.

More than 52,000 immigrant children have illegally crossed the border as of the end of May, and many thousands more are expected.

While the White House has said it wants more flexibility and resources in terms of promptly processing undocumented children, Democrats expressed concerns immediately after the administration made its proposal.

On Monday, the White House said it was “likely” that migrant children facing the “credible threat” of death in their home countries would be allowed to stay in the United States, as the administration sought balance on the issue.

“These children will — and other immigrants who are attempting to enter the country without documentation — will go through the immigration process and that means their claims of asylum will be considered by an immigration judge and by asylum officials,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

That comes days after the administration offered tough language, saying most children crossing the border would be sent back.

During the trip to Honduras and Guatemala, Granger and other members of the working group, including Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Steve Pearce (N.M.), as well as Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), toured a Honduras community outreach center aimed at preventing children from crossing the border. The lawmakers also met with the presidents of both countries, and visited repatriation centers in both countries.

The working group's presentation parallels but is separate from the House Appropriations Committee's ongoing review of the administration's request. Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said last week that $3.7 billion was “too much.”

House Republicans are facing a difficult balancing act when it comes to crafting a response to the situation at the border, which both parties agree has reached crisis levels. Conservatives have pushed hard for swift and strong action to return the children to their home nations, and to place pressure on those nations to discourage future trips across the border.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a vocal critic of U.S. immigration policies, said Monday that he did not expect to be impressed by the plan discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.

He also said he personally likes Granger and recognizes her position as head of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing much of the issue makes her a logical choice to deal with the issue, but hasn’t seen her do much on the immigration issue.

“I’d be surprised if they came up with a conclusion that’s going to fix the problem,” he said in an interview. “I expect they’re going to come to us and say we have to take this off the table. We’re going to have to give the president some money, and tie our own strings with a border security bill.”

“I’m trying to think of a time that she’s brought up the topic of immigration to me, and I can’t think of that time,” he said of Granger. “I have not seen that she’s been driven on this issue.”

House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), another working group member, said Sunday that border security legislation his panel unanimously passed in 2013 could be included in any package. The bill, which has bipartisan support, would require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a national plan to secure the border, which must result in a 90 percent apprehension rate of illegal crossers within five years.

“We're looking at things like changing the 2008 law, we're looking at things like my border security bill passed out of my committee, putting that as a provision, so that finally we can get this thing done,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Cuellar, a moderate Democrat, will introduce bipartisan legislation this week with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would amend the 2008 law and establish the same rules for unaccompanied minors from Central America as Mexico or Canada. Doing so would effectively speed up the ability of the administration to send the children back to their home countries.

But in a sign of the difficult politics for the Obama administration, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wary of increased deportations have distanced themselves from Cuellar.