Child migrant crisis: Congress gives itself three weeks to find a fix

Coming together on one of the most polarizing issues in politics is a tall order for Congress, but elements of a bipartisan response are beginning to take shape on Capitol Hill.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
A young migrant girl waits for a freight train to depart on her way to the US border, in Ixtepec, Mexico, on July 12. Unaccompanied children are being apprehended at the rate of about 200 to 250 a day, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress say they want to address the child migrant crisis on the border before they break for their long August recess. That gives them just three short weeks to come up with a solution that can pass both chambers – a solution that will, by necessity, have to be bipartisan.

That’s a very tall order in this Congress, especially considering the polarizing nature of anything to do with immigration. The midterm elections are also nearing, and that motivates politicians to show how they differ with the other party, not how they agree with it. Yet, the crisis is urgent and involves children – two big motivators to find a solution.

Here’s where things stand in Congress as lawmakers consider President Obama’s $3.7 billion request to deal with the crisis:

No blank check. Both House and Senate Republicans say they’re not going to just rubber-stamp the president’s request, which seeks emergency funds for things like housing and care for minor migrants, more immigration judges, border security, and assistance to countries of origin. Any emergency funding would probably be only for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, with subsequent needs being handled through the annual budget for 2015.

“It’s too much money,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky on Friday. “There are pieces of it that need to be dealt with immediately, and that’s what we’re working on,” said the congressman, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee that deals with government spending.

On Tuesday, a House Republican working group set up to address the child migrant crisis will issue a set of recommendations to its GOP colleagues. The group is likely to include revising the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The law requires unaccompanied minors from countries that do not directly border the US to have hearings before immigration judges before they can be sent back to their countries of origin.

A bipartisan proposal. A Democrat in the House and a key Republican in the Senate expect to unveil on Tuesday legislation that they call the HUMANE Act, Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency. The lawmakers, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) and Sen. John Cornyn (R), the Senate minority whip, both hail from Texas – ground zero for the influx of unaccompanied children, who are being apprehended at the rate of about 200 to 250 a day, according to Jeh Johnson, the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.

A spokeswoman for Congressman Cuellar wrote in an e-mail to reporters that the legislation will treat all unaccompanied minors, regardless of country of origin, with “equality” under the law, allowing for voluntary reunification with family in their home countries. 

It will also allow unaccompanied migrant children who have a claim to remain legally in the United States to make this claim in court before an immigration judge – and it will pay for more judges; require “humane facilities” to alleviate overcrowding; and deter future children from undertaking the treacherous journey.

The White House supports treating minors from Central America the same as those from Canada and Mexico, but some Democrats vigorously oppose any change to the 2008 law. The law was created to give trafficked minors proper care, including placement in "the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child" and the right to have their cases adjudicated. Democratic critics say changing the law would mean that children who have just been through a traumatic ordeal will be sent back to dangerous situations.

Executive action. Some argue that no changes to the 2008 law are needed. All the president needs to do is have the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked by law to care for the children, and the Department of Homeland Security, which apprehends them, take advantage of that part of the law that allows for “exception circumstances.” This point was made last week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who was a key player in putting together the 2008 legislation.

“I would urge HHS and DHS to sit down and set the exceptional circumstances – it may be the number of children coming through in a week or a month, however you see it – and how the process might be modified,” she told Secretary Johnson at a Senate hearing on the crisis last week.

On Sunday, that position found a nod of agreement by Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. “The president has tools in his toolbox” to “immediately stop this,” he said on ABC's "Meet the Press." Referring specifically to Senator Feinstein's suggestion, he said: "That's where the president needs to start."

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