WASHINGTON -- The Homeland Security agency responsible for removing immigrants who are in the country illegally will run out of money by the middle of next month unless Congress approves President Obama's emergency request for $3.7 billion to help deal with a flood of child immigrants crossing the border illegally without their parents, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says.
In addition, Customs and Border Protection, whose 20,000-plus Border Patrol agents are responsible for arresting illegal border crossers, will be out of money by mid-September at the "current burn rate," Johnson told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday as he defended the president's emergency budget request.
Johnson said if Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol run out of money, the Homeland Security Department "would need to divert significant funds from other critical programs just to maintain operations."
While Johnson, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and other administration officials made their pitch for the extra money, outlines of a possible compromise to more quickly deport minors arriving from Central America emerged Thursday. More than 57,000 child immigrants, mostly from Central America, have been caught crossing the U.S./Mexican border since Oct. 1.
Separately, the U.S. Border Patrol said Thursday it has stopped transporting Central American children and families to San Diego after they are arrested in South Texas, halting the short-lived experiment that sparked a backlash in one city when protesters blocked a road and forced the rerouting of busloads of immigrants.
The Border Patrol has reduced its backlog of families being held in Texas' Rio Grande Valley and has improved processing there, agency spokesman Paul Carr said.
He denied that protests earlier this month outside the Border Patrol station in Murrieta, California, influenced the decision.
In Washington, Republicans demanded speedier deportations for Central American immigrant children, which the White House initially had supported but left out of its emergency spending proposal after complaints from immigrant advocates and some Democrats. On Thursday, the top House and Senate Democrats pointedly left the door open to faster deportations.
"It's not a deal-breaker," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "Let them have their face-saver. But let us have the resources to do what we have to do." Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill later clarified that any changes "must ensure due process for these children."
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: "I'm not going to block anything. Let's see what comes to the floor."
Johnson said that "discretion" to be able to more swiftly return Central American children to their home countries would help Homeland Security curb the flow of minors.
At issue is a law approved in 2008. Passed to give protection to sex trafficking victims, it requires court hearings for young migrants who arrive in this country from "noncontiguous" countries - anywhere other than Mexico or Canada.
But opposition arose Thursday from key Democratic senators, suggesting looming battles before any deal can be struck.
"I can assure you that I will fight tooth and nail changes in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at a hearing on the situation, referring to the law Republicans want to change.
Reid and Pelosi made their comments as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both said they didn't want to give Mr. Obama a "blank check" to deal with the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at the Texas border, many fleeing gangs and drawn by rumors they would be able to stay in the U.S. Boehner and McConnell indicated policy changes would be necessary to win their support.
"We want to make sure we actually get the right tools to help fix the problem," McConnell said. The president "needs to work with us to get the right policy into effect."
Proponents of speedier deportations say an effective way to stem the tide of young immigrants crossing the border would be to send them back home right away, to show their parents that the trip north was wasted.
Because of enormous backlogs in the immigration court system, the result in the current crisis is that minors streaming in from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are released to relatives or others in the U.S. with notices to appear at long-distant court hearings that many of them never will attend.
Republicans want the government to have the authority to treat Central American kids the same way as children from Mexico, who can be removed quickly unless they convince Border Patrol that they have a fear of return that merits additional screening.
"I think clearly we would probably want the language similar to what we have with Mexico," Boehner said.
White House officials have said they support such changes and indicated last week that they would be offering them along with the emergency spending request. But immigration advocates objected strongly, saying children would be denied legal protections, and the White House has not yet made a formal proposal.
As for the children and adults arriving in South Texas, the government chartered three flights to San Diego since July 1, with each carrying about 140 Central American adults and their young children. They had been scheduled to arrive every three days until a flight set for Thursday was scrapped.
Flights to San Diego may resume but there are no plans to do so, Carr said.
"There is no turn-on date," he said.
The flights have been a rallying cry for anti-illegal immigration activists because families are typically released as they await hearings in immigration court.
Before the latest surge of Central Americans to this country, there was only one family detention center in the county, designed for 85 people in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Last month, the government opened a center in Artesia, New Mexico, designed to hold as many as 700 people.
The Border Patrol flew a large number of families from Texas to Tucson, Arizona, in late May, drawing criticism from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer when U.S immigration and Customs and Enforcement dropped them off at bus stations. ICE takes custody of the families after they are processed by the Border Patrol.
Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE in San Diego, declined to say how many families were released after being flown to San Diego.
Flights also began last week from Texas to Yuma, Arizona, with immigrants then bused to El Centro, California, for processing.
Jackie Wasiluk, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol's parent agency, declined to comment on the status of any flights due to security considerations.
"Our foremost priority is the safety of the (Department of Homeland Security) personnel who are conducting these transfers and the welfare of those who have been entrusted to their custody," Wasiluk said.