The White House request for $3.7 billion to handle the crisis at the southern border has found little support in Congress, touching off what could be a lengthy negotiation to find a compromise.
Republicans said Wednesday they would not approve the money unless Democrats agreed to amend current law to ensure that most of the Central American children and teenagers who have arrived at the border in recent months are swiftly returned to their home countries -- as the White House proposed more than a week ago.
"Nobody's going to be keen to appropriate that money unless we get a change in the law," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), echoing the concerns of many Republican senators, who discussed the issue in a meeting Wednesday.
"We've got to stem the tide," Flake said. "Until the parents and relatives and those who have paid smugglers thousands of dollars see kids coming back, it's just going to continue."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the administration would be engaging in "selective morality" if it allowed these children to enter the U.S. while those from Africa and the Middle East cannot simply show up at the border.
"I'd like for them to be totally aware they will not be allowed in the country," McCain said.
Late in 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law a measure that guarantees protections and hearings for minors who arrive at the border without parents from countries other than Mexico and Canada.
The administration has previously advocated changing that law to speed the process of returning minors to their home countries. The lengthy delay involved in hearings has fed the perception in Central America that children who get to the U.S. border will not be sent back, administration officials say.
But the White House has backed away from proposing legislation on that subject after key Democrats on Capitol Hill and advocates for immigrants protested.
The president's allies said the flood of unaccompanied children from Central America amounted to a refugee crisis, and their cases warranted judicial review, as the law provides.
The administration now says it needs money first to deal with the flood of more than 50,000 young people who have arrived since October and that it will seek changes in the law later.
For Republicans, though, the offer to change the law has already been made. That proposal has become part of the GOP's opening bid as they also seek to reduce the amount of money the administration wants to house and monitor the children.
The GOP is under enormous political pressure to do more than simply oppose the White House funding request as the party tries to mend its relations with Latinos and show sensitivity to the plight of children who have arrived at the border. At the same time, the party's opposition to government spending makes the administration's request for more money a tough sell.
More speedily sending new arrivals home is a policy Republicans can embrace, especially if it comes with presidential backing.
"People understand there's a humanitarian crisis on the border; people understand children's lives are at risk," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who played a pivotal role last year in helping the Senate pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
He is now working on "figuring out some expeditious way of getting these young people back to their countries," Corker said.
None of that talk sits well with Democrats, who were already cool to the White House proposals.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an author of the 2008 law, has said the administration already has ample authority to speed up legal proceedings to handle the children at the border in a way that would ensure due process.
"We have a legal system to address the crisis; let's use it, and let's give the president the resources he needs to enforce it," said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). "It's the history of Americans to treat refugees appropriately."
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