Congress Fiddles — and Squabbles — as Border Crisis Grows

Chances of a swift solution to the flood of unaccompanied children across the border seem remote.

A young girl waits for her family upon arriving to San Pedro Sula, 240 kms north of Tegucigalpa, on July 2, 2014, after being deported from the US. Thousands of unaccompanied children, most of them from Central America, have trekked to the United States in recent months and now face deportation in what the United States has called a humanitarian crisis.
National Journal
Billy House Fawn Johnson Rachel Roubein
July 17, 2014, 4:14 p.m.

Polit­ics and pess­im­ism on Thursday over­took any pos­sib­il­ity of a swift con­gres­sion­al re­sponse to the flood of un­ac­com­pan­ied, un­doc­u­mented chil­dren at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, as the House and Sen­ate con­tin­ued mov­ing to­ward dra­mat­ic­ally dif­fer­ent ap­proaches.

Ques­tions and de­bate swirl around con­ten­tious policies, as well as the amount of emer­gency fund­ing needed to ad­dress the crisis. Many key Sen­ate and House Demo­crats will go along with Pres­id­ent Obama’s $3.7 bil­lion re­quest, but House Re­pub­lic­ans say they are look­ing at less than half of that amount.

Mean­while, oth­er clashes came over re­com­mend­a­tions — in­clud­ing some call­ing for drastic changes to ex­ist­ing laws — from a spe­cial House “work­ing group” led by Rep. Kay Granger of Texas. Among the group’s “prin­ciples” for GOP le­gis­la­tion to deal with the bor­der crisis is put­ting an end to the so-called “catch-and-re­lease” sys­tem for un­ac­com­pan­ied minors.

And more tur­bu­lence is on the ho­ri­zon: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said Thursday he wants to re­quire Obama to stop giv­ing spe­cial treat­ment to un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who were brought here as chil­dren.

Cruz didn’t make clear how he en­vi­sioned end­ing the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram, which en­sures that eli­gible un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants will not be de­por­ted and can get driver’s li­censes and work per­mits. But he said he wants that as a con­di­tion of grant­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion emer­gency fund­ing to deal with the cur­rent crisis — even though the pro­gram is not dir­ectly re­lated, policy-wise, to the flood of chil­dren ar­riv­ing from Cent­ral Amer­ica.

Cruz said end­ing DACA would send a clear mes­sage to Cent­ral Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies not to send their chil­dren on a dan­ger­ous jour­ney by “mak­ing clear that we won’t give am­nesty to those who are here il­leg­ally.”

As the obstacles to any quick bi­par­tis­an re­sponse to the crisis moun­ted, House Speak­er John Boehner ex­pressed doubt Thursday that a deal would be pos­sible be­fore law­makers ad­journ at the end of Ju­ly for their an­nu­al sum­mer break.

“I would cer­tainly hope so, but I don’t have as much op­tim­ism as I would like to have,” Boehner said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence. As he spoke, House mem­bers were already leav­ing Wash­ing­ton on Thursday to be in their dis­tricts over the week­end.

Boehner ex­plained that his gloomy out­look was based on “some com­ments made by our col­leagues across the aisle that are go­ing to make this much more dif­fi­cult to deal with.” He was re­fer­ring, spe­cific­ally, to the rising op­pos­i­tion from Demo­crats in both cham­bers to chan­ging a 2008 anti-traf­fick­ing law in or­der to speed up de­port­a­tions of chil­dren from Cent­ral Amer­ica who il­leg­ally crossed the bor­der from Mex­ico.

Many Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy of Ver­mont, House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, and the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus, now say they would op­pose that. The idea of the law was to provide pro­tec­tions to chil­dren — al­though not those from Mex­ico or Canada — who were en­ter­ing the U.S. il­leg­ally to flee ab­use or vi­ol­ence, by pre­vent­ing them from be­ing too-quickly sent back to their coun­tries.

“It’s com­plic­ated. We don’t want to tinker with it,” said Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein of Cali­for­nia, who coau­thored the 2008 law, on Wed­nes­day.

But Boehner as­ser­ted that that law is be­ing ab­used, and ques­tioned wheth­er Con­gress could send more money to the bor­der to “mit­ig­ate the prob­lem if you don’t do something about the ‘08 law.”

In fact, chan­ging that law is one of the re­com­mend­a­tions from the House “bor­der work­ing group” in its set of prin­ciples for the House to pur­sue, com­pleted on Thursday. Mem­bers of the group led by Granger, in­clud­ing Reps. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and Matt Sal­mon, R-Ar­iz., said a com­pleted pack­age of re­com­mend­a­tions was de­livered by Granger’s staffers to each of their of­fices on Thursday morn­ing for a fi­nal sign-off.

Most of the work­ing group’s re­com­mend­a­tions are ex­pec­ted to be­come part of the House Re­pub­lic­an al­tern­at­ive to Obama’s pro­pos­al.

While there could be some last-minute changes, one of the re­com­mend­a­tions — in ad­di­tion to chan­ging the 2008 anti-traf­fick­ing law — will be that chil­dren should be de­tained un­til they see an im­mig­ra­tion judge. That would put an end to the so-called catch-and-re­lease sys­tem for un­ac­com­pan­ied minors. The guidelines will re­com­mend this should hap­pen with­in five to sev­en days.

“This is a ma­jor, ma­jor change,” said Sal­mon. “There will not be those bus­loads of kids com­ing in to the vari­ous com­munit­ies; there will not be the fam­ily units dropped off at the bus sta­tion in Phoenix and Tuc­son, like they have been be­fore. They will stay de­tained un­til they’re ad­ju­dic­ated.”

Sal­mon did not spe­cify the num­ber of ad­di­tion­al judges the guidelines will call for to make this pro­cess work.

Oth­er re­com­mend­a­tions in­clude such things as provid­ing more Na­tion­al Guard in­volve­ment in hu­man­it­ari­an re­lief ef­forts, such as help in provid­ing shel­ter, food, and health care. There also will be a re­com­mend­a­tion aimed at “chan­ging the nar­rat­ive” by pro­mot­ing — per­haps through ad­vert­ise­ments in Cent­ral Amer­ica — the no­tion that the U.S. will send im­mig­rants back home if they do not ar­rive leg­ally.

Mem­bers of the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee, led by Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers, R-Ky., are also near com­ple­tion of the fund­ing part of their plan, and have already said their dol­lar fig­ure won’t come any­where near the $3.7 bil­lion sought by Obama. Ro­gers on Thursday would not provide a spe­cif­ic fig­ure, ex­plain­ing that cost cal­cu­la­tions were still be­ing done on po­ten­tial vari­ations of that fund­ing plan, in­clud­ing some off­sets else­where in the budget to the ad­ded spend­ing.

Ro­gers did say the pack­age would provide fund­ing for agen­cies and oth­er op­er­a­tions in­volved in deal­ing with the surge crisis through Jan. 1. But he said the pro­pos­al likely won’t be fi­nal­ized un­til next week, at the earli­est.

In this area, Boehner and ap­pro­pri­at­ors are tread­ing care­fully be­cause of in­tern­al party con­cerns as well. Some House con­ser­vat­ives and out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups have said they are op­posed to ap­pro­pri­at­ing any more money for bor­der is­sues out­side of a reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess.

On Thursday, however, Sal­mon said that while he wasn’t pre­pared to be the one to an­nounce the ex­act dol­lar amount be­ing con­sidered by ap­pro­pri­at­ors for the House Re­pub­lic­an plan, he offered that it will be “less than half” of what Obama pro­posed.

That would set up a ma­jor dif­fer­ence between House Re­pub­lic­ans and most Demo­crats, in­clud­ing lead­ers in the Sen­ate. There, Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski said on the Sen­ate floor on Wed­nes­day that she is ask­ing for the full $3.7 bil­lion to be ap­proved.

“There are those who will want to take from oth­er do­mest­ic pro­grams. I would cau­tion that, and, in fact, I ob­ject to the very idea of that,” she said.

“The pres­id­ent has said this is an emer­gency — an emer­gency un­der the Budget Con­trol Act of 2011,” she said. “It meets the cri­ter­ia that it is ‘sud­den, ur­gent, un­fore­seen and tem­por­ary’ and deals with the ‘loss of life or prop­erty’ or ‘threat to na­tion­al se­cur­ity.’ I think it meets that test.”

But the smal­ler emer­gency fund­ing level that House Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear pre­pared to em­brace, along with some of the GOP de­mands for policy changes, were de­scribed by Pelosi at a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day as “go­ing in the wrong dir­ec­tion.”

The ten­sion is ex­pec­ted to in­crease with Cruz’s ur­ging that Obama end his de­ferred ac­tion pro­gram for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who were brought here as chil­dren. Nor­mally, le­gis­lat­ive de­mands from the brazen Cruz re­quire at least a pause be­fore be­ing taken ser­i­ously. He is known for grand­stand­ing. But in this case he has the sup­port of his seni­or col­league from Texas, John Cornyn, the Sen­ate’s No. 2 Re­pub­lic­an.

“I’m cer­tainly open to that, if it’s pro­spect­ive, to say no fur­ther de­ferred ac­tion from the pres­id­ent,” Cornyn told re­port­ers on Thursday. Cornyn said that, in his un­der­stand­ing, a “pro­spect­ive” end to DACA would not im­pact the 550,000 young people who have already been ap­proved for it. “It wouldn’t ap­ply to them,” he said.

Even with all the ap­par­ent hurdles to a deal, however, Cornyn soun­ded more hope­ful, or per­haps more des­per­ate, than Boehner about Con­gress’s abil­ity to pass a sup­ple­ment­al spend­ing bill.

“What hap­pens if noth­ing hap­pens is the prob­lem con­tin­ues, and per­haps starts to es­cal­ate,” he said. “People are real­iz­ing that they are go­ing to have to pay to edu­cate and house these chil­dren. It will put more pres­sure on the pres­id­ent and Con­gress if we do not act.”

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