WASHINGTON — More than 20 members of Congress spent some time during the July 4th recess on the border visiting the processing and detention centers where thousands of undocumented immigrants, many of them minors, are currently.
The surge of people coming over the border from Central America has been deemed a humanitarian crisis by the Obama administration, and the president will officially ask Congress for an additional $2 billion to send to the border on Tuesday.
Democrats and Republicans who visited came away with very different impressions of what the government can and should actually do about the crisis there, and the reasons for it: Republicans continued to blame the Obama administration's immigration policies for the increased influx of minors coming in; Democrats argued the main issue was the conditions in Central American countries forcing children and their parents to flee.
But following the visits, members on both sides of the aisle seem open to amending a 2008 anti-trafficking law that directs the United States to treat unaccompanied minors from "noncontiguous" countries differently than children crossing the border from Mexico. The law requires that the government take in these minors and process them through the Department of Health and Human Services before their immigration cases are decided. The Obama administration is seeking changes to the law to allow for expedited processing.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who led a delegation of five members to the border, said through a spokeswoman Congress should carefully consider tweaks to the 2008 law if the president presents them. But the statement added there were immediate steps Obama should be taking now to slow the flow of undocumented immigrants into the United States.
"While there are some laws that complicate how we deal with minors from Central America coming the U.S. illegally, it is crystal clear that President Obama has many tools he could use now to quell this activity in the Rio Grande Valley and prevent minors from making the dangerous journey to the United States," Goodlatte said in an emailed statement. "If President Obama wants to stop this problem, he should enforce our immigration laws and quit using his pen and phone to create administrative legalization programs. Additionally, he needs to direct officials at the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on asylum fraud and implement deterrents to stop people from entering in violation of the law. This would send the unequivocal message that it is no longer worth the risk to subject children to the dangers of the perilous trip north to our southern border."
Conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador, a staunch critic of the Obama administration's immigration policies, did not travel to the border but said on Meet the Press Sunday he would welcome a change to the 2008 law.
"I think we need to change that law. We shouldn't be treating the children from Central America any different than we treat the children from Mexico and Canada. And I think that is something that I will join the administration is doing," he said.
Democrats have argued that passing a broad immigration law would go a long way to further securing the border and providing regularity in the law. But to immediately address the crisis, some said that immediately visiting the 2008 law was the best first step.
"The short-term fix is that 2008 law, which no one had ever really talked about, mentioned, since it was passed and we're clearly seeing that because the border agents are charged with carrying out the letter of that law is that any child not from Mexico must be placed within 72 hours — they're kind of stuck," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who went to McAllen, Texas, with the Homeland Security Committee. "Under our laws, we have to receive and place these kids, so I think the first thing we have to do it is amend that law to give the border agents more discretion on a case-by-case basis for these kids."
At a field hearing in McAllen, many of the members on Homeland Security called the situation "heartbreaking." Arizona Republican Matt Salmon said seeing the children brought tears to his eyes — but the majority of Republicans on the panel agreed that those crossing over needed to be sent back as quickly as possible. Salmon told the Arizona Republic he planned to introduced a fix to the 2008 law this week in Washington.
The committee's lead witness, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, concurred that the U.S. government needed to do everything it could to send back the thousands of children crossing the border back home.
"Some may think that allowing them to stay here is a more humane option and I can assure you it's not," Perry told members at a field hearing of the Homeland Security Committee. "Nobody's done any of these children the slightest favor by delaying the rapid return to the countries they were born to."
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee defended the government, pointing again to the anti-trafficking law.
"A massive deportation policy for children is not a humane thing to do. We must find a way to follow the law, Republicans voted for the law in 2008 and that is the law that transfers these children to Health and Human Services. Maybe we need added help," she said at the hearing. "I am ready to provide funding for more ICE officers, more resources for the border patrol, and more help for the state."