Democrats in the House and Senate said Tuesday they would oppose any changes to a 2008 human trafficking law Republicans have blamed for the wave of child immigrants crossing the border.
The opposition sets up a standoff and raises serious doubts about whether Congress will be able to act before its summer recess in response to what both parties argue is a humanitarian crisis.
“The 2008 law, as you know, sets up a reasonable standard for requesting asylum,” he said. “That should never be changed.”
Other Democrats said the Obama administration never should have signaled a willingness to change the law.
“The White House shouldn’t have opened the door at all on that discussion,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “The White House makes every effort, particularly on immigration, to try to split the baby. But in this case it’s impossible.”
The 2008 law allows authorities to send immigrant children from Mexico or Canada back to their home countries within 48 hours of a screening, but requires that children from Central America and other countries be granted an asylum hearing that can take weeks to set up.
President Obama has signaled a willingness to consider changes to the law, but did not propose new language in his request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with a crisis that has overwhelmed authorities at the border.
The White House on Monday punted on the issue of how to deal with the 2008 law, arguing it would rely on Congress to determine the “legislative machinations.”
House Republican leaders on Tuesday said they would demand that changes to the law be included in any funding bill for the border.
“I think it would be an element of anything we do,” said House Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Republicans argue the existing law has bogged down the processing and deportation process. They want to see unaccompanied immigrant children from all nations treated like Mexican minors, who can be deported by a border agent without a court hearing.
“An average case of someone coming across the border illegally ... will take between a year and a half to as long as five years,” said Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who is leading the team drafting recommendations on the issue. “That’s just not acceptable. So we’ve got to change that.”
Grijalva and other liberals argue that, if anything, Congress should be working to expand the 2008 law.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking House Democrat, said Tuesday that any changes to the trafficking law should be debated separately from the funding bill.
“The first priority we have is to meeting the challenge that confronts us today,” he said. “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.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he opposed legislation drafted by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) that would change the law, calling it too broad.
He added that he believes the border to be secure overall, and that the administration can adjust the deportation process without legislation from Congress.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the highest-ranking Hispanic member of Congress, stopped short of saying he would oppose an entire funding bill if it amended the 2008 law. But he said Democrats aren’t interested in changing the law to expedite processing at the border.
“If it’s just change for the sake of returning kids, then what they’re essentially saying is, we’re trying to diminish the rights and protections we afford to children,” he said.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said the Cornyn-Cuellar bill was deportation “in sheep’s clothing.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the GOP is still awaiting final recommendations from the House Appropriations Committee and the border working group 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.
Both parties face internal divisions over the bill. Many Republicans are likely to oppose any legislation as too lenient on people illegally crossing the border, while some conservative Democrats have expressed interest in joining the GOP in changing the trafficking law.
In addition to Cuellar, Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) has signed on to the legislation backed by Cornyn.
“Our bill relates to the expediting process, still making sure they have due process, but speeding it up,” he told The Hill. “That’s the only way we’re going to really stem the tide.”
Barber is a GOP target this fall.
Timothy Cama contributed.