President Obama's surprise request that Congress give him authority to quickly deport thousands of Central American children illegally crossing the border is likely to renew the on-again, off-again immigration reform debate that many Republicans had hoped to avoid.
The administration is asking Congress to approve $2 billion in emergency funding for beefed-up border security and assistance, as the children — many traveling without their parents under the mistaken impression that they will be allowed to stay — slip across the Southwest border. Amid a growing humanitarian crisis, many of the children are being sent as far away as California and Oklahoma for processing and shelter.
The request, expected to be formally made Monday, seems intended to blunt criticism that White House immigration policies have inadvertently encouraged the crush of youngsters.
But the proposal presents lawmakers with an unpleasant vote on whether to deport children, something the U.S. has historically resisted. It also would undo part of a bipartisan 2008 law passed under President George W. Bush that mandated certain protections for minors fleeing violence and poverty in Central American countries and other nations.
Some conservative lawmakers may decide, particularly in an election year, that deporting the children is an appropriate response that would send a hard-line message against illegal immigration.
But for many others, particularly Democrats and Republicans representing areas with large immigrant populations, the prospect of such a heart-wrenching vote could fuel arguments that the time has come for broader immigration reform.
"It's pretty sad if the one thing they pass this year is deporting a bunch of kids — not just deporting, but permanently rolling back due process," said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the immigration advocacy group Women's Refugee Commission.
Democratic aides said Sunday that the president's proposal would provide an opportunity to reopen the legislative debate. But passage of an immigration overhaul remains a long shot, given deep resistance from the Republican-led House; many consider the bipartisan reform package that passed the Senate last year all but dead.
Once lawmakers return from their weeklong Independence Day break, the White House intends to ask Congress to move quickly to address its latest border request, which it views as an "aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers," a White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly said Sunday on condition of anonymity.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry will meet with the leaders of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala on the sidelines of the Panamanian president's inauguration to reinforce items agreed to during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the Central American countries earlier this month, the official said.
Authorities have apprehended more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors at the Southwest border so far this fiscal year — about double the number from a comparable period in the last fiscal year. Many are fleeing violence at home, or reacting to false rumors that children and families will be given permission to stay.
Although no program grants residency to such migrants, in a strange way, the rumor has become somewhat true. After 72 hours, the Department of Homeland Security must transfer detained children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is required to "act in the best interest of the child." That often means reuniting the child with a parent or relative living in the U.S. With the massive backlog in immigration courts, migrants can spend years in the U.S. before their cases are heard.
As the number of immigrants grows, U.S. lawmakers have reacted with a mix of partisan fervor against the administration's policies and, at times, exasperation over what to do next.
"I think, you know, we have to be humanitarian, but at the same time let them know that if they do come, they cannot stay here," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Otherwise, we'll never stop the flow."
Democrats who have pushed for the Republican-controlled House to take up an immigration measure after the Senate approved its bipartisan bill a year ago said the border crisis only amplified the need for Congress to act.
"We never give up," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said during a weekend trip to the border in south Texas. "There's still the month of July and, again, public sentiment is everything."
The $2 billion in emergency border funding to detain and process arrivals specifically in the Rio Grande Valley along the Southwest border will probably appeal to all but the most conservative deficit hawks in Congress, who tend to oppose any new spending. An administration official said Sunday that the amount requested was likely to rise.
But the administration's proposal to undo part of the 2008 law that provided specific protections for minors from countries with noncontiguous borders — all but Mexico and Canada — has already raised alarms, especially from the president's Democratic allies.
Under current law, children from Central American countries are afforded an immigration or asylum hearing, a process that smugglers, or coyotes, portray to immigrants as a permiso — permission to remain in the U.S.
The change sought by the administration means the children would no longer get that hearing. Instead, they would have just one opportunity to make their case to immigration officials as soon as they were detained.
"This is what's shocking about what this administration is asking for," Brané said. "Even under the Bush administration, before the law was codified, it was [accepted] that children shouldn't be put through that process. The idea was if you're going to put a kid on a plane, you need to think about that a little more."
Immigration activists said the White House's sudden strategy was little more than a quick fix to deeper problems that have been exacerbated by Congress' failure to act. It could also fuel the disenchantment of some activists who have dubbed Obama the "deporter in chief" in an effort to goad him into relaxing deportations by executive order.
Republicans say the rise in new arrivals shows the president's executive actions have become a magnet for immigrants. They point to his 2012 decision to give young adults who arrived illegally as children temporary permission to stay in the country as long as they are enrolled in school or have served in the military.
Others, though, say the broken system has left immigrants little choice but to take their chances with illegal entry if they ever hope to reunite with family members already in the U.S. or escape the poverty or wartime conditions in their own countries. The waiting list for legal entry can stretch for decades.
"It is incredible we're reacting from crisis to crisis instead of solving the problem," said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican strategist who supports immigration reform and blames both parties for failing to pass legislation. "It is sad if they could reach an agreement on [Obama's latest request] but not anything else."
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