By Alexander Bolton - 07/11/14 06:00 AM EDT
A bipartisan 2008 bill intended to crack down on child trafficking has become a flashpoint in the debate over an emergency spending bill to address the immigration crisis in Texas.
President Obama has asked for $3.7 billion and increased authority to deal with 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who have streamed across the border illegally. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson warned Thursday the number could reach 90,000 by the end of September.
Unlike illegal immigrants from Mexico, these minors are guaranteed a court date by the trafficking law. They are often released to relatives to wait out their pending appeal, a process that results in only 1,800 per year being deported to their countries of origin.
Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, informed Obama of his concerns in a recent phone call.
“I want to make sure that the children who are going through this have proper advocacy and representation,” he said.
Durbin said he would not support changing the law unless the unaccompanied minors are guaranteed proper representation. He also wants U.S. officials to ensure there are social infrastructures that can take care of them in their home countries.
“He called and we talked about the same thing,” Durbin said of his conversation with the president. “I told him I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to these kids. God forbid some of these children go right back in the hands of murderers and rapists.”
The surge of minors has come primarily from three Central American countries plagued by violence and gang activity.
A United Nations report earlier this year named Honduras as having the highest murder rate in the world with 90 homicides per 100,000 people.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would oppose amending the 2008 trafficking law through the emergency spending bill.
“I can’t think of any reason that it should,” he said when asked about including a policy change in the supplemental spending measure.
“If we follow the law, they’ll get due process,” Leahy said of child immigrants from Central America. “One of the things that this country stands for is human rights.”
At an Appropriations Committee hearing later in the day, Leahy warned it would set a bad example for other countries if the United States turned away border crossers whom he said should be viewed as refugees from violence. He argued Americans would find it deplorable if Jordan deported refugees to combat zones in Syria.
Republican leaders, however, argue the spending package should include policy changes to make it easier for the administration to deport the minors quickly.
One senior Homeland Security Department official told Congress there is a backlog of 375,000 immigrant children in the courts and it takes between three and five years to process each case.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday that he supports the administration’s call for changing the trafficking law.
"I do," Boehner said. "And the president agrees with it as well."
"Clearly, we would probably like the language to be similar to what we have with Mexico," he added.
Senate GOP whip John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are pushing proposals that would allow U.S. immigration officials to treat underage illegal immigrants from Central America the same as those from Mexico.
“My hope is that sometime maybe late next week, if not then, the next week we can come up with some package that will make sense,” Cornyn said.
He said the House may combine the policy changes with the spending measure and send it to the upper chamber.
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) is heading a task force looking at potential solutions and plans to travel to Central America this weekend.
Obama suggested in a statement Wednesday after meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) that he wants the 2008 law changed through the supplemental spending bill.
“I indicated to him that part of what we're looking for in the supplemental 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,” Obama said.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday the bill should not include policy changes.
“My preference would be to pass the bill [as a] stand-alone bill. It’s emergency spending,” Reid said. “With this money we can do all kinds of things. We can go after the coyotes, we can go after the drug cartels and we can take care of these children. These children should be treated as humanely as humanly possible.”
Senate Democrats said Obama had backed off somewhat from his request.
“The initial signal was there were going to be changes. Questions were raised and they said let’s work it out,” Durbin said.
A senior Democratic aide noted that Obama’s formal request for emergency spending did not also ask for a policy change to be included.
“To my knowledge they are not asking for it to be included in the bill at this point,” said the aide.
An administration official, however, said the president had not backed down.
“We already sent a letter to the congressional leadership last week on our desire for expanded authorities and we are still seeking those authorities and have made clear we will work with Congress to get those authorities,” the official said.
Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, tried to straddle the dispute during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday.
He said changing the 2008 law would be helpful in addressing the border crisis quickly, but he insisted it was not necessary.
“I do believe that some type of added discretion on my part would be helpful to address this particular situation,” he said.
But when asked by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) if the administration could stop the surge of illegal immigrants without a policy change, he testified, “I believe we can.”
Justin Sink contributed.