WASHINGTON -- With political pressure mounting over the wave of unaccompanied minors on the nation’s southern border, Democrats began showing signs of internal division on Tuesday over how to address the crisis.
Lawmakers in the party are grappling with how to handle a proposal pushed by Republicans and some in their own party that would expedite the deportation of many of those minors. Republicans have shown no such internal divisions on their part, demanding that current law be changed as a precondition for spending money to address the problem.
Recent months have seen a major surge in young, undocumented immigrants from Central America entering the United States along the southern border. A 2008 law intended to protect victims of human trafficking entitles these children to an immigration hearing before deportation -- a process that can take months or even years.
For the GOP, it's time to make it easier to get these young people out of the country.
"That's front and center," Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a member of the House GOP working group on the border crisis, told reporters Tuesday.
Whether Democrats will stand and fight against the changes -- potentially at the risk of derailing funds to deal with the crisis -- or accept weakened protections will be a major question as talks move forward. Cracks are already showing. A Democrat, Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, introduced a bill on Tuesday meant to expedite removal proceedings for unaccompanied minors, more than 57,000 of whom have come to the U.S. illegally this fiscal year. He already picked up one Democratic co-sponsor in Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.).
The bill is getting considerable praise from Republicans, and was jointly introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Its title intentionally spells out the word "humane" -- the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency Act.
But advocates and many Democrats say its anything but humane to put unaccompanied minors through a rapid removal process that would give them less time to access legal counsel and make their case for why they should be able to remain.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in a statement that the bill was "the deportation-only agenda dressed up in sheep’s clothing." He and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, along with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have vowed to fight against efforts to change the laws meant to protect unaccompanied minors.
The Hispanic Caucus will meet with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to discuss the crisis. Obama and the White House have voiced support for amending current law so unaccompanied minors can be more quickly deported. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday at a briefing that the administration will review the bill and "give it due consideration."
While a small group of House Democrats are already on board with the proposal and the White House has signaled it would accept changes to the 2008 law, Senate Democrats have continued to withhold their support. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he opposes the bill.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week that modifications to the law on unaccompanied minors were not a "deal-breaker," but that any changes must ensure due process.
House Republicans have rejected Obama's request for $3.7 billion to deal with the border crisis, which would go toward caring for the minors already in the U.S., removing those who don't qualify for relief and attempting to deter others from entering the country.
Instead, they are working on their own funding plan, led by Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). He said Tuesday that his committee is "combing through the numbers" and awaiting policy recommendations from the GOP working group, which is chaired by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas).
Along with changes to the law on unaccompanied minors, members of the Republican working group said they will propose sending National Guard troops to the border, bringing on additional immigration judges, bolstering border patrol, helping foreign countries with repatriation efforts and encouraging Mexico to secure its southern border.
Members would not comment on the cost of their proposal, but Politico reported that senior House Republicans are discussing a bill that would fund about half of the president's request.
One thing missing from the members' statements about their proposal: funding for the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency is tasked with caring for unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada, and has been overburdened by the recent influx. Obama's spending request included $1.8 billion for HHS. Salmon said that a significant increase in funding for HHS wouldn't be necessary if their plan were to be implemented, because minors would be deported more quickly.
House Republicans are likely to face some internal turmoil as well as the border crisis continues. While leadership and many others say additional funding is necessary, some conservatives argue the president should make do with the money he already has.
"I'm not in favor ... of giving this president, who owns this problem and created this problem, who's not doing his job, any more money to not do his job with," Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) said at an event with fellow conservative members.