The flood of immigrant children crossing the Southwest border took center stage Thursday on Capitol Hill as a Senate committee moved to provide $100 million to respond to the crisis.
In addition, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for measures that included allocating funds to combat the violence in Central America — blamed for driving the flight of unaccompanied minors — to ensuring that children detained at the border receive legal assistance.
"Can you imagine how scared these children are?" Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) cited reports that thousands of children younger than 10 were crossing the border illegally. "This breaks my heart," he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the crisis is largely being caused the belief in Central America that "it is better to run for their lives and risk dying than to stay and die for certain."
They were joined by Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in calling for, among other things, placing child welfare workers at the border, using alternatives to traditional detention, such as releasing a mother with an ankle bracelet, and cracking down on smugglers.
The Democratic lawmakers said the crisis also promotes a sense of urgency for Congress to overhaul immigration law, noting that a Senate-passed bill includes border security measures.
Republicans have been offering their own ideas, including the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the border.
That idea drew sharp criticism from Gutierrez.
"To say we need to put more National Guardsmen on our border to greet children? Fleeing guns and violence, and then confronted with guns on the other side?" Gutierrez said.
As Vice President Joe Biden heads to Guatemala to coordinate a response to the flow of immigrants, Democratic lawmakers disputed the suggestion that the Obama administration's deferred-deportation program was contributing to the surge. The program to avoid deportation of young people whose parents brought them illegally to the U.S. years ago does not apply to new arrivals.