GOP to Obama: It'll take more than money to fix immigration problems

Detainees are escorted to an area to make phone calls as hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. Pool, Getty Images

As Congress reconvenes this week focused on dealing with President Obama's $3.7 billion request to handle the influx of unaccompanied children streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border, Republican lawmakers are already signaling they have big changes they want to make.

"Our view I think as House Republicans, is, look, we're not going to write a blank check for $4 billion," said Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said on "Fox News Sunday" echoing comments from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last week.

McCaul was one of several key Republicans who have indicated they are more interested in targeted spending as well as changes to existing laws that will speed up the process of removing the children from the United States and deterring them from entering in the first place.

"It's going to be a more targeted approach, probably through the end of the fiscal year, but also on the policy side," added McCaul, who is serving on a group of Republican lawmakers tasked with developing responses to the crisis.

McCaul suggested changes to the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which passed with strong bipartisan support, to protect minors but also prevents U.S. authorities from quickly deporting children from countries that do not share a border with the United States. Instead, these children are taken into U.S. custody and have the opportunity to appear before an immigration judge and are supposed to be handled according to their best interests.

There appears to be widespread support among Republicans for amending that law in order to speed up deportations of Central American children, who are primarily coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

"They're caught in the middle between the administration's policies and what the drug traffickers are doing in Central America. So, they have this perilous dangerous journey through Mexico where they're exploited, abused, raped, and in some cases don't make it at all. We think if we change this law as a message of deterrence, we can actually protect and save these children," McCaul said.

Democratic leaders in the Senate have indicated changes to the 2008 law might be negotiable as long as the children's rights are being protected. But they would face steep resistance from Hispanic members of their party.

"The fact is, the children are handing themselves over to the Border Patrol Agents, and under our laws, they must be treated," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said on CBS News "Face the Nation" Sunday.

"There's American Exceptionalism, right? I believe in it, and I say we are the strongest, wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world and children are coming into our borders and we should protect them. Now I will say this, follow the law, and the law said that we must put the children's interests first, which is what President Barack Obama is doing."

He stressed that the law passed during "calmer times, [with] right, levelheaded people thinking about the issue."

Others, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have pledged to "fight tooth and nail" against any changes to the law.

But if Republicans were to prevail and Mr. Obama went along with the changes, he would risk the wrath of some prominent Latino advocacy groups who are already angry with him for record levels of deportations during his presidency.

"The United States has been historically a nation that has led efforts on refugee and humanitarian crises, so we expect no less than the same response. Why should children from Central America be treated differently?" said Cristina Jimenez, the co-founder and managing director of United We Dream, a group that advocates for young immigrants.

Jimenez said the Latino community has lost faith in both the White House and Democrats over the failure to slow the deportation rate and will be watching how they confront Republicans during the crisis with the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections in mind.

"This is actually a big opportunity for President Obama to lead, to do the right thing, to be grounded in American values," she said. "I think that's the message that we're sending to Democrats right now. We need them to stand up if they want to regain the confidence of the Latino community."

For their part, despite an effort by GOP leaders to woo Latino voters, the party has struggled to gain much ground when it comes to immigration issues, and advocates say they have been disappointed yet again by the GOP's response.

"I think what's ironic is that it was a law that came about under a Republican administration," Juanita Molina, the executive director of the Border Action Network, told CBS News. "It says something about the Republican Party that they're willing to go back on the law."

Republicans are also taking issue with the percentage of funding in the president's request related to housing the children: $1.8 billion alone would go to the Department of Health and Human Services which is responsible for housing the children once they are transferred out of Customs and Border Patrol custody.

"That, I think, is what the American people don't like to see, because they know that that is not deterrence. And that will result in even more people coming into the country," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said on ABC's "This Week."

He and other Republicans, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, say the president needs to take more steps to deter children from crossing in the first place, including beefed up security along the U.S. border. Goodlatte said targeted appropriations should be used "to make sure that we are able to detain people and send them back to their countries."

McCaul suggested that instead of building facilities to house the children in the U.S., Congress should consider building those facilities in the countries of origin in Central America. And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" that the U.S. consider increasing resources at embassies and consulates in Central America so children with valid humanitarian claims can apply there and be brought to the U.S. in a manner far safer than the current journey up through Mexico.

"The fact is that we cannot have an unending stream of children, whether it be from Central America or anyplace else, to come into our country, with all of the strains and pressures that is put on our capabilities. It's not acceptable," McCain said.

Decision time will likely come in the near future. McCaul said the crisis "demands action" and said he expected Congress to act before lawmakers leave town for a five-week recess in August.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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