Dems reject border 'ultimatums'

House Democratic leaders warned Wednesday that softening a 2008 immigration law to expedite deportations of children would sink any effort to provide emergency funding at the southern border.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), joining GOP leaders in the Senate, has insisted that new funding to address the border crisis be accompanied by changes to the six-year-old human trafficking law to make it easier to send migrant children back home.

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But Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), head of the House Democratic Caucus, suggested Wednesday that his troops aren't ready to get on board. He accused Boehner and the Republicans of "making ultimatums" that would put a deal out of reach before Congress leaves for its five-week August recess.

"I hope Speaker Boehner changes his mind and decides that it's time to do something," Becerra said after a meeting of the caucus in the Capitol.

"There's a big difference between getting things done and playing politics," he added. "If the Republicans wish to pursue a political approach to this and shut down the opportunity to deal with this humanitarian crisis, then they should understand what they're doing to those kids." 

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, piled on, accusing GOP leaders of dawdling in the face of a crisis.

"This is an emergency. … It needs to be addressed. It deals with young people — children — who need to be adjudicated in the most humane way," Crowley said. "The Republicans want to just, at this point, do nothing."

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, warned this week that Congress simply doesn't have the time to tackle such a radioactive topic in the short period before the August break.

"If we want to change the law ... that ought to be subject to a separate debate, [a] separate bill," he said. "But nobody believes that we're going to complete that debate in the next eight days."

On Wednesday, a Republican working group, led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), unveiled a set of legislative recommendations for addressing the border crisis. The provisions include changes to the 2008 law — the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act — making it easier to deport the unaccompanied Central American minors who have crossed the border in recent months. 

The package would also send National Guard troops to help the agencies already working along the border, while providing additional funding for immigration judges to expedite the processing of the kids.

Granger said the proposals provide "common-sense, compassionate, but tough solutions" to the "immediate crisis."

“Our focus has been to ensure the safety of the children and it has remained a top priority throughout this process," she said in a statement.

A bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), would also allow the Central American children to leave the United States voluntarily rather than go through mandated legal processes.

The Obama administration, which has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding for the border, has been elusive about its position on the 2008 law, at once asking for more flexibility to deport the new arrivals while vowing not to undermine due process protections. 

On Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson advocated for changes in the law to expedite the processing of those kids not eligible for asylum or other humanitarian aid.

“We’ve asked ... for a change in law and we’re in active discussions with Congress right now about doing that,” he said.

Johnson's comments were not lost on Cuellar, who issued a statement praising "the administration’s commitment to adjusting the current law and making it clear to criminal organizations that we will not facilitate or reward human trafficking."

"We need to close the loophole in the current law that incentivizes trafficking and send a clear message to smuggling organizations while still maintaining all due process and legal protections for immigrants,” Cuellar said in a statement.

The administration's call for changes to the law puts Democratic leaders opposed to such tweaks in a tough spot. Still, those leaders appear, at least for now, to be holding firm in their resistance, while blaming the Republicans for the impasse.  

"If they're going to play political shenanigans with this, they're tinkering with the well-being, not just of these kids, but of our system on immigration that has to be fixed," Becerra said of the Republicans.

"The last thing Congress should do is play this game of shutdown, do-nothing politics."