Republicans and Democrats in the House are clashing over whether changes to a 2008 human trafficking law should be included in emergency legislation for the border.
Republicans have blamed the influx of children at the border on the 2008 law, which they say has served as an incentive for people to enter the United States. The law allows minors entering the country from Central America, but not Mexico, to request asylum hearings.
House Democrats are balking at the push, arguing the debate over the trafficking law should be kept separate.
“The first priority we have is to meeting the challenge that confronts us today,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking House Democrat, told reporters. “And that is ensuring the fact that [federal agencies] ... have the resources necessary to ensure the humane and appropriate handling of the children that they have responsibility for.”
Hoyer said the legal rights afforded to the Central American children align with “America’s humanitarian instincts,” and said changes to the rules should not be rushed through Congress.
“Hearings need to be held on that, debate needs to be held on that in committee, and we need to consider that, and not consider it in the timeframe that is necessary to deal with this humanitarian crisis that we have now,” Hoyer said.
The child trafficking law has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over immigration. Critics say the law is contributing to the border surge that has overwhelmed officials in the Southwest, but supporters of the policy say it is needed to help children whose lives are at risk.
The White House tried to stay out of the fray on Tuesday, saying the policy changes in the bill would be up to Congress to decide.
"In terms of the legislative machinations of all this, we're going to rely on Congress to do its business in the way they think is most appropriate," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. "What we would like to see is prompt action."
But Earnest said the White House does "believe that individuals from Central America who are apprehended along the southwest border are entitled to due process."
"That is a principle that this administration continues to support," Earnest said.
President Obama has requested $3.7 billion in funding to deal with the surge of immigrants. Hoyer said the money should be approved with no major strings attached.
“If the Speaker wants to make a deal on whether or not we’re going to take care of children, we don’t think that’s the appropriate policy to pursue,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “We need to take care of children.”
Boehner, meanwhile, said the GOP was still awaiting final recommendations from the House Appropriations Committee and a border working group led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) before deciding what immigration legislation to put forward.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said his team will also be trying to figure out how much of the administration’s $3.7 billion request is needed immediately, and what could be dealt with later during the regular appropriations process.
“I want a chance to see what they’re recommending, because some of these items could relate to how much money we have to spend. We’ll wait and see what the recommendations are,” Rogers said.
Lawmakers are rushing to craft legislation before the August recess to deal with the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from Central American countries crossed into the United States, creating a massive backlog for judges who must determine whether they should be deported.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have introduced legislation to amend a 2008 trafficking law so that all child immigrants crossing the border undergo the same process, regardless of where they come from.
"I think it would be an element of anything we do," said House Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
But Democrats appear to be coalescing against such changes in the emergency bill, and are stressing the need to approve funding as soon as possible.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the immediate crisis should take priority over policy changes.
“I think most of us would like us to move forward with the president’s request and consider any changes that we hope will not only move this forward in the best interest of our country and in the best interests of these children, but do so in a way that continues to show that we respect due process rights,” he told reporters.
“What we don’t want to see is to reduce due process rights, we don’t want to find ourselves returning children to persecution, human smuggling, sex trafficking, perhaps death,” he said. “Anything that undermines due process, I think would concern most of our Democratic colleagues.”
This story was updated at 1:33 p.m.
— Justin Sink contributed.