WASHINGTON -- The White House is attempting to walk a fine line on how to change a 2008 anti-trafficking law that has become a flashpoint as Congress considers how to address the ongoing border crisis.
The law requires unaccompanied minors from countries other than Canada and Mexico to go through a hearing process to determine if they are eligible to remain in the U.S. through asylum or other relief. But the 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border since October have overwhelmed the system, making the 2008 law seem unsustainable to many.
Republicans say the 2008 law must be changed as a condition of approving any funding for the crisis. Most Democrats say it should be left as is.
The White House is staking out its place in the middle. Although Republicans have skewered the administration for requesting changes and then backing away from them, White House officials are continuing to state their desire to amend the 2008 law so the Department of Homeland Security has more flexibility to speed up deportations.
At the same time, they say the changes should not be a precondition to getting funding -- like the $3.7 billion that President Barack Obama has requested -- to address the crisis. They also say that any reform must be carefully considered and not passed in haste, lest Congress be forced to grapple with unintended consequences at a later date.
On Thursday, a White House official specifically criticized a bill from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) that would change the 2008 law to speed deportations. The bill would allow minors to present a claim to remain in the U.S. within seven days of an initial screening. It would then require a judge to decide within 72 hours whether that minor should be immediately deported.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity while briefing reporters, expressed concern about the bill's time requirements.
"Because it sets some arbitrary limits on what the judicial process should be, we have concerns about whether the Cornyn-Cuellar bill actually meets these twin goals that I described," the official said, referring to the administration's stated goals of addressing humanitarian claims, but also deporting unauthorized immigrants quickly if they are deemed ineligible for relief.
"We don't think that changes in the authority are the prerequisites to being able to take action here," the official continued. "We do think, as we indicated weeks ago to [House Speaker John Boehner], that increased flexibility would be helpful."
Unaccompanied minors from Canada and Mexico can be screened by border patrol agents and then deported. However, under current law, minors from other countries are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services and receive more time to make a case, often in front of an immigration judge, for why they should be allowed to remain.
On June 30, Obama sent a letter to Congressional leaders with requests for helping the administration to address the border crisis. One was "providing the DHS Secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children from non-contiguous countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador."
But when Obama made a request to Congress for $3.7 billion in funding to address the crisis, he did not couple it with a request for legislation that would change the 2008 law. Now, the debate over amending that law could threaten the chances of Congress compromising on funding.
Senate Democrats have proposed a $2.7 billion funding package that does not call for other legislative changes.
"We don't want radical riders that will weaken our refugee and human trafficking laws or accelerate deportation of children without due process under existing law," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said on Wednesday while announcing the details of the Democrats' bill. "We don't want a backdoor version of bad immigration reform."
House Republicans are working on a package that would allocate $1.5 billion in funding to address the border crisis, coupled with measures such as sending the National Guard to the border and changing the 2008 law meant to protect unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries from being quickly deported without a hearing. Rep. Boehner (R-Ohio) has been critical of the president for saying he wanted to change that law and then failing to push for it publicly.
"This is a problem of the president's own making," Boehner said at a press conference Thursday. "He says he wants to solve the problem so that we can stop this influx, but then he changes his mind. We've got a president that's AWOL. The president ought to get engaged on this if he actually wants something to happen."
Boehner sent a letter to the president Wednesday asking him to clarify his stance on changes to the 2008 law and to give "strong, public support from the White House for much-needed reforms."
Asked about Boehner's letter later Wednesday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz indicated to reporters that the administration stands by Obama's initial suggestion to amend the law.
"We want to work with Democrats and Republicans to make sure those changes are done the right way," Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One. "But first and foremost, we need the resources -- in the form of judges, prosecutors, asylum officers -- to deal with the problems."
Although most Democrats have rejected coupling the border crisis funding with a change to the 2008 law, there is the possibility that they could support amending it at a later date, if done right, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday.
"If [Republicans] want to pursue a legislative process to consider amending the law, that is a reasonable thing to do," said Hoyer. "But what is not reasonable is to do it in this supplemental with no hearing as to the consequences, no hearing as to the underlying causes and no hearing as to what [...] ramifications the legislation will have. I mean none, zero, zip hearings."