WASHINGTON — Two Texas lawmakers say they plan to introduce a bipartisan bill Tuesday intended to combat the humanitarian crisis at the nation’s southern border and make it easier to send migrant children from Central America back to their home countries.
The legislation is expected to encounter resistance from some congressional Democrats. It comes as the White House has signaled a willingness to work with Republicans to win passage of President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to confront the surge of Central American migrants into the United States, with a heavy concentration of them in Texas.
The legislation, by Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber’s No.?2 Republican, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, would amend a 2008 law intended to stop sex trafficking that grants migrant children from Central America extra legal protections when they cross the border, protections Obama has said make it harder to return these children quickly to their home countries.
Although the prospects of a broad immigration overhaul - which passed the Senate with bipartisan support in June 2013 - officially died in the Republican-controlled House this summer, the president’s request for emergency funds to fight what he called “an urgent humanitarian situation” has fast turned into a partisan proxy fight over the nation’s immigration system.
Republicans have signaled that, at the least, they expect to amend the 2008 law, a move they hope will deter families from sending their children to the United States as it becomes clear that they are likely to be returned home.
“My guess is that once the word gets back to Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere that, ‘Look, it’s not a free pass. This permiso doesn’t work. They actually will send you back,' that people will not start the journey,” Cornyn said, using the Spanish word for permit.
Cuellar said the legislation would help provide for “a speedy trial date.”
The Cornyn-Cuellar bill, known as the Humane Act, would allow children from Central American countries to opt to be voluntarily sent home, as migrant children from Mexico and Canada can currently choose. It would also allow children with a legal claim for remaining in the country to make their case before an immigration judge within seven days of undergoing a screening by the Department of Homeland Security. Judges would then have 72 hours to decide whether the child could remain in the country with a sponsor while pursing legal action.
The legislation would also authorize up to 40 new immigration judges to expedite the process, and it would require a plan, as well as additional resources, for gaining operational control over 90 percent of the nation’s southern border.
Cornyn and Cuellar said they expected the legislation to start in the House, where it would be added as a precondition to the president’s requested supplemental spending bill.
“The money itself is not a solution to the problem. This is a solution to the problem,” Cornyn said. “I couldn’t vote for this supplemental without the reforms.”
Two Republican senators from Arizona, Jeff Flake and John McCain, are working on similar legislation that would amend the 2008 law and increase the number of immigration judges available to hear the cases of unaccompanied minors. Their bill would also increase the number of refugee visas for Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans by 5,000 each, to encourage children to seek asylum through legal channels in their home countries.
Congressional Republicans find themselves in a difficult spot. They are reluctant to give Obama what they view as a “blank check” for a problem they say is of his own making. But, having long agitated for stricter border security measures, many also believe it would be politically untenable for them not to act on the crisis now.
On Tuesday, a Republican working group investigating the situation at the border and led by Rep. Kay Granger of Texas is expected to brief the House Republican conference on its preliminary findings and recommendations. The group has expressed a desire to change the 2008 law.
Congressional Democrats and immigration advocates have voiced concern about making it easier to send children back to the potentially violent situations they were fleeing - a politically delicate situation for the president.
The White House refused Monday to comment specifically on the Cornyn-Cuellar bill, but Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said, “We certainly welcome constructive engagement from Republicans.”
The administration also embarked on a push this week on Capitol Hill to persuade lawmakers to approve the emergency spending request before the monthlong August recess. On Monday night, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met with a group of moderate, so-called Blue Dog Democrats.
And Wednesday evening, Johnson will hold a private briefing for all senators. He will be joined by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the health and human services secretary; James Cole, deputy attorney general; and Brian Deese, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.