House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said a 2008 anti-trafficking law that prevents the speedy deportation of Central American children is "being abused" and must be changed to stop the flow of minors across the border.
"I don't know how Congress can send more money to the border to begin to mitigate the problem if you don't do something about the '08 law that's being abused, and it is being abused," Boehner told reporters Thursday.
He added that he "can't imagine" House Republicans would support authorizing funds to deal with the crisis without looking at changes to the law, which they view as critical to stopping people from sending children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to the U.S. Democrats' resistance to changing the law has increased in recent days, to Boehner's dismay.
"I don't have as much optimism as I'd like to have," he said about approving President Obama's $3.7 billion funding request to deal with the crisis, citing "comments made by our colleagues across the aisle."
The 2008 law in question, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, mandates that all unaccompanied children arriving in the U.S. from countries other than Mexico and Canada have the opportunity to appear before an immigration judge before being put into deportation proceedings. A bill proposed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, would mandate the same treatment for all unaccompanied children apprehended at the border: a quick return to their home countries without going through the immigration system, or a speedy trip through U.S. immigration courts that would take less than two weeks to decide whether they have a valid claim to remain in the U.S.
Top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at first expressed openness to changes to the 2008 law but now say they would not accept the Cornyn-Cuellar proposal.
Pelosi also told reporters Thursday that she did not believe a change in the law is required to allow the administration to speed up the process of providing immigration hearings for the children who were apprehended at the border.
"Without changing the law or anything else we can, with resources, expedite the procedure to have a more timely procedure with more representation and with more judges to deal with the issues no matter where the children come from," she said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., also said that he could not accept any changes to the law.
"I understand the desire to accelerate the process, but accelerating without due process is not acceptable," he said. "There is a reason why that law was passed. It was passed to say that non-contiguous nations, if you are fleeing 2,000 miles to try to come to the United States, there may be a greater probability that you have a real case to be made for asylum, because you have a credible fear for the loss of your life...You don't come with anything but the clothing on your back. And when you get here to the United States, you are going to need a reasonable period of time to be able to produce the facts to make that case. That doesn't come with you."
But the Democratic and Republican divide on the issue, already seemingly insurmountable, could get even worse. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the staunchest conservatives in the Senate, is now arguing that any bill that addresses the crisis must include language to shut down Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a 2012 program started by the Obama administration that removes the threat of deportation for certain immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children before 2007. Republicans have argued the policy was a magnet that spurred the current crisis.
Cruz's demands drew a sharp rebuke from Reid on the Senate floor Thursday, when he accused his colleague of "trying to hold these kids ransom."
"It would be cruel and unusual what the junior senator from Texas wants done," Reid said. "The deferred action plan is a positive step forward and we should not go back, especially not as a ransom for helping our border personnel care for desperate children."
He called on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to "rein in these extreme elements of his caucus so we can achieve a real solution."
"These children are real, little kids, real human beings. They shouldn't be used as pawns in the republicans' high stakes game of chicken with President Obama," Reid said.
Boehner demurred when asked about the proposal from Cruz, who has close ties to many of the more conservative members of the House GOP and helped spur the 2013 government shutdown.
"We don't have a bill yet, we're having a lot of discussions and we're going to continue those discussions," he said.