By Mike Lillis - 07/24/14 12:12 PM EDT
House Democrats will fight to ensure migrant children crossing the border keep their legal protections, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed Thursday.
Appearing in the Capitol with the presidents of Honduras and Guatemala, the minority leader suggested Democrats wouldn't accept any border-assistance bill that rolls back the mandatory due process rights currently afforded those children.
With more than 57,000 unaccompanied children crossing the border since October, Congress is wrestling with a legislative response that will speed the processing of those kids while ensuring they aren't sent back into harm's way.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina blamed the crisis on drug smugglers, known as coyotes, who are "misinforming" families that they can buy their children a permanent home in the United States.
"They're making a lot of money," Molina said through a translator, "but through deception."
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández agreed but also placed much of the blame on the "ambiguity" created by the U.S. Congress in the heated fight over immigration and failures to reform the system.
"It is a matter that arises, we believe, from the lack of clarity … the ambiguity ... that has become the hallmark of the policies and the debates that are being carried on [surrounding] the question of immigration reform here in the United States," he said through a translator. "And that is a situation that the coyotes are very perversely taking very much an opportunity to exploit."
Hernández characterized the drug cartels as "an enormous criminal hulk" with "one foot firmly planted in Central America and Mexico ... but the other is here in the United States."
"That's why this is a problem that we must tackle together," Hernández said. "That's why we're here."
The comments arrive as House Republican leaders are insisting that any new funding to address the border crisis be accompanied by changes to a 2008 human trafficking law to make it easier for the Obama administration to repatriate kids arriving unaccompanied from Central America.
President Obama has also asked for "more flexibility" in managing the deportations, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said this week that "we’ve asked ... for a change in law, and we’re in active discussions with Congress right now about doing that."
Still, Obama's official request to Congress did not mention the 2008 law, stirring criticism from Republicans, who are accusing the president of caving to Democratic pressure.
A House GOP working group, led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), unveiled legislative recommendations Wednesday that include changes to the 2008 law. The same day, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote a letter to Obama wondering why he's asked informally for more powers to deport but excluded the 2008 law from his official request.
"Frankly, it is difficult to see how we can make progress on this issue without strong, public support from the White House for much-needed reforms, including changes to the 2008 law," Boehner wrote.
Meanwhile, Pelosi and House Democrats are rallying against any changes to the law that erode the legal protections it affords the migrant children.
"You don't change a law when there's a crisis at the border," Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said Wednesday. "Change it when there's level heads, when there's not a crisis to exploit."
With House Republicans divided on the question of whether any new legislation is needed at all, Boehner would almost certainly need Democratic votes to get a bill to the Senate.
Hernández, for one, said he's optimistic that all sides could come together to solve the crisis.
"As human beings that we all are, I'm sure we can put our heads together and try to find a solution," Hernández said.