Lawmakers plan bill to confront surge in young immigrants

Supporters of the New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform Campaign rally at Battery Park on July 14, 2014 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Two Texas lawmakers plan to introduce a bipartisan bill on 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 counties.

Though the legislation will probably encounter some resistance from Congressional Democrats, it comes as the White House has asked for nearly $4 billion in emergency funds to confront a recent surge in young Central American migrants into Texas and has signaled a willingness to work with Republicans to handle the crisis.

The legislation, by Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, and Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas 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, but that President Obama has said makes it harder to return these children quickly to their home countries.

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The bipartisan bill is a response to President Obama's request last week for a $3.7 billion supplemental spending bill to curb the surge of more than 57,000 young migrants from Central America into the United States. Though 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 broken immigration system.

Republicans have signaled that, at the very least, they expect to amend the 2008 law.

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 Health and Human Services Department. Judges would then have 72 hours after hearing the claim to decide whether the child could remain in the country with a sponsor while pursing legal action.

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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.

The 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 within their home countries.

Congressional Republicans find themselves in a difficult spot. They are reluctant to give Mr. 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 Republicans also believe it would be politically untenable for them simply to ignore what they also believe is a crisis at the border.

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On Tuesday, a Republican working group investigating the situation at the border and led by Representative Kay Granger of Texas is expected to brief the House Republican conference on its preliminary findings and recommendations. The group has already expressed a desire to change the 2008 measure, signed into law by President George W. Bush and intended to prevent human trafficking.

The White House refused on Monday to comment specifically on the Cornyn-Cuellar bill, but it said it was eager to enforce the 2008 law "more efficiently," an approach that could including rewriting the original measure.

"We certainly welcome constructive engagement from Republicans," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. "After all, we've seen a lot of talk from Republicans about how urgent and pressing this situation is, but not a lot of action when it comes to acting on a proposal the president has now put forward, a detailed proposal that the president put forward eight days ago now."