Senate Democrats shoot down bipartisan child immigrant proposal

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

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday a bipartisan proposal to address the flood of Central American children coming across the southern border of the United States was "too broad" and he wouldn't support it.

The soon-to-be proposed legislation from two Texas lawmakers, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, aims to speed up the rate at which the U.S. processes minors apprehended at the border. It is billed as an improvement on a 2008 law designed to prevent human trafficking that requires any child from a country other than Mexico and Canada who is apprehend to be given the opportunity to appear before an immigration judge.

The Texas lawmakers would instead propose the same treatment for all unaccompanied children apprehended at the border, allowing for "voluntary reunification with family" - or a quick return to their home countries without going through the immigration system. If a child intends to stay in the U.S., he or she would get an initial court hearing within a week of their arrival. Then, a judge would have 72 hours to determine whether or not the child has a legal claim to stay in the U.S., and any child who was determined not to would be sent to his or her home country immediately. The bill would add about 40 new immigration judges to speed up the court processes.

The authors of the legislation view it as a companion bill to any congressional legislation authorizing or amending President Obama's request for $3.7 billion to handle the crisis. Cornyn told reporters Tuesday that the president's request for more money doesn't contain "anything that would actually fix or solve the problem, so we supply that."

But Reid said the legislation is "covers a lot of other issues other than the problem we're having at the border" and thus deemed it too broad.

"From all the reports I've gotten on the legislation the answer from me is no I won't support it," he said.

The legislation appeared to have at least some favor with congressional Republicans, who have said the 2008 anti-trafficking law should be amended to deal with the crisis. Incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Tuesday that he expected the Cornyn-Cuellar bill to be "an element of any package we do on the border."

It would have a hard time gaining support from Democrats, even though widespread Republican support could mean no Democratic votes are necessary to pass the bill through the House. Even though Cuellar is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, other members of the body have said the changes will not give children enough time to properly prepare for a request for asylum.

"It basically undermines the due process rights of a child that exists under existing law," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "I hear my colleagues all the time say, 'rule of law, rule of law.' Well, there is rule of law and there is a law in place and it was passed with broad bipartisan support. And you can't in 72 hours go ahead and make the case that your father got murdered in front of you. You can't make the case that the gang said join us or die, if you don't have the time to produce documents, affidavits, certificates and what not. And so it is unacceptable to me to basically have a deal that undermines all those rights."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the administration had not yet reviewed Cornyn and Cuellar's proposal but shied away from committing to a change in the 2008 law.

"We do believe that individuals from Central America who are apprehended along the southwest border are entitled to due process," Earnest said. "We would like to and are committed to enforcing that law. In fact, what we would like is additional authority to be given to the Secretary of Homeland Security so we can enforce that law more efficiently."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted Democratic objections to the proposed changes won't last.

"They will fold like a cheap suit, eventually," he said. "The public is with us."

Other legislation is in the mix as well. Arizona's two senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, are working on a bill that would similarly amend the 2008 law to speed up repatriation of children apprehended at the border and require mandatory detention or alternatives to detention like ankle monitors to ensure those who are waiting for court dates appear. It would also, however, increase the number of refugee visas by 5,000 each for El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the three countries the majority of the unaccompanied children have fled. The pair says this will encourage people to apply for permission to enter the U.S. from their home countries rather than making the dangerous journey through Mexico.

McCain told reporters Tuesday that he thinks the Cornyn-Cuellar bill is "good" and could see parts of his own legislation merged into it.

"I can't speak for all my colleagues but, I'm certain there is rough broad agreement. Flake's and mine has more provisions in it - like more judges, more visas, and three countries, that kind of thing," he said.

Meanwhile, a group of House Republicans tasked with studying the crisis is still working on their response. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expected to have a "better idea of how we might move ahead," based in part on that group's conclusions, by the end of the week.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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