POLITICS

For Border Crisis, Many Bills But No Clear Answer

07/17/2014 07:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 18, 2014
Win McNamee via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- As the days tick down until Congress leaves Washington, D.C., for the August recess, there are a number of proposals but no full consensus on how to deal with the crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally.

A handful of bills have already been introduced, with more likely to come. There's one positive: The bills are largely similar to each other, or at least based on the same goals. But there's little time left to coalesce around a single proposal -- particularly when most Democrats remain resistant to making changes to existing law, which Republicans demand in exchange for funding.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday he hopes Congress can approve a bill by the end of the month that will provide funding for the border crisis. But he said Democrats are making it difficult.

"I don't have as much optimism as I'd like to have," Boehner told reporters.

President Barack Obama asked Congress last week for $3.7 billion in funding to care for the more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who already entered the U.S. illegally this fiscal year, handle their removal cases and attempt to deter more from coming. Administrative officials have said the current funds for the crisis will run out by the end of August, so there's little time to waste, particularly with only two weeks left in the congressional calendar until September.

Democrats have called for Congress to appropriate the full amount, but Republicans argue it's too much, either saying they shouldn't allocate any money or, more commonly, that they should allocate far less than requested. The House Appropriations Committee is still working on its proposal for how much funding to give the president, based on recommendations by a working group of Republican members commissioned by Boehner.

The working group has not released its recommendations publicly, but according to a report from National Journal, it will propose changing a 2008 law to allow for quicker deportations, bringing in more immigration judges, keeping minors in detention until their cases are heard and sending National Guard troops to the border.

Related proposals are piling up. Most of them would amending the 2008 law that puts unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada through immigration court proceedings, which slows their removal from the United States. Democrats have largely opposed changing that law because it could give minors with legitimate claims to stay in the U.S. too little time to make their case.

Republicans may need Democratic votes for their funding proposal in the House, and it will certainly need support from the Democratic majority in the Senate. But the issue of changing the 2008 law could cause problems. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have voiced opposition to a bill that would change that law.

Although Pelosi didn't rule anything out before seeing the final Republican funding bill, she indicated Thursday that she does not think the proposals she has heard so far can win over her caucus.

"What we've seen so far is going in the wrong direction," she told reporters. "If they want Democratic votes, it's got to go more in the right direction."

Despite concerns, some members said they have no choice but to find a way to compromise on funding soon.

"What happens if nothing happens is that the problem continues, and perhaps continues to escalate," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Thursday, predicting backlash if the crisis continues. "I think there's going to be more negative reaction directed toward the president and Congress if we don't act."

Proposed bills so far:

  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)
  • The bipartisan legislation, which is getting the most attention so far, would change the 2008 law to speed up deportations of unaccompanied minors. It would allow children to present a claim to stay in the U.S. within seven days of their screening by the Department of Health and Services, and add new judges to get through those cases more quickly. The judges would be required to decide within 72 hours of the claim whether the minor could stay. If a judge approved the claim, the child would be able to stay in the U.S. to pursue legal remedies, and the Department of Health and Human Services would be required to conduct a fingerprint background check on anyone taking custody of them.

  • Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.)

  • The congressman, a member of the House GOP's working group on the border crisis, was one of the first out of the gate, announcing a bill last week that would change the 2008 law so that all cases of unaccompanied minors would be treated the same way, and children from countries other than Mexico and Canada would be deported more quickly than under current policy.

  • Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

  • The senators proposed increasing the number of immigration judges, changing the 2008 law to allow speedier removals, and requiring officials to keep the children in custody while their cases are being adjudicated. Their bill would also increase the number of refugee applications from within Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, to encourage people to apply for refugee status from within the countries rather than immigrating illegally. The legislation would require Obama to certify the three countries are cooperating in attempting to prevent illegal immigration, or else risk losing aid from the United States. It would increase penalties for human smuggling.

  • Rep. John Carter (R-Texas)

  • This bill, like many of the others, would make children from non-border countries go through the same expedited process as those from Mexico and Canada. It would also require immigration officials to investigate people who take custody of the children within the U.S., in case they are here without authorization. The bill would allow officials to keep minors in their custody while removal decisions were being made.

  • Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)

  • The legislation would expedite removal of unaccompanied minors and make it more difficult for them to claim "credible fear" of returning to their native country or to apply for asylum. It would also increase the number of immigration lawyers, ban the government from paying for lawyers for unaccompanied minors (it currently does not provide them) and allow border agents to access federal lands they currently cannot patrol.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

  • Cruz's bill is an outlier -- instead of going after the 2008 law, he said he wanted to address the reason for the crisis, which he argues is a 2012 Obama policy that allows undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children before June 2007 to apply to stay. His bill would ban the administration from granting more young people relief under the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or from expanding similar policies to other undocumented immigrants.

  • Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)
  • Although it's not a bill, King announced a resolution calling on governors from border states to deploy units of the National Guard to prevent immigrants from crossing illegally. He had 26 co-sponsors at the time of the announcement.

  • Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.)
  • Their bill, which was introduced in both chambers, would require the government to detain all unaccompanied minors and give them the option to voluntarily return to their native countries, a process that would keep them from going through court proceedings. It would expedite deportation of those affiliated with gangs and make it harder to claim asylum. Anyone without claim for asylum would be deported within 72 hours of being screened, if possible. In addition to addressing unaccompanied minors, Vitter and Cassidy's legislation would bar all undocumented immigrants from reentering the U.S. for 10 years, rather than allowing some to have lower bars to reentry.

This article has been updated with information on a bill announced Friday by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

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