WASHINGTON -- House Democrats publicly shamed Republicans on Tuesday for what they said is a lack of compassion toward undocumented children streaming across the U.S. border, urging them to have a heart.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking at a Congressional Progressive Caucus event, said deporting unaccompanied minors without adequate time to hear their cases to stay in the country was tantamount to "sending them back into a burning building."
House Republicans introduced a bill on Tuesday that would give President Barack Obama $659 million to address the crisis at the southern border, where more than 57,500 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended since October.
But the legislation includes measures Democrats staunchly oppose, such as changing a 2008 law meant to ensure due process for unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada. Democrats said the bill had too little funding for legal representation for the children and teenagers, who are often forced to go through a complicated process of applying for relief without an attorney.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the progressive caucus, said the children are being politicized. Congress, he said, needs to look at the bill "in the context of human beings and children."
"Regrettably, these migrant kids that are coming to this country are being blamed for everything right now dealing with the border, dealing with immigration reform and why we don't have it, dealing with DACA and the need to get rid of it," Grijalva said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that allows undocumented young people who have been in the U.S. for years to stay temporarily.
"They're to blame for having more troops on the border," Grijalva continued. "They're to blame for having every communicable disease that ever existed on the face of the earth. I think that's a lot to put on their little shoulders."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said there is "no reason" to change the 2008 law that gives legal protections to unaccompanied minors from Central America, arguing that the children deserve to know their rights when entering the country.
"It's time to push politics aside and put these kids first," Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said.
The hearing featured the testimony of undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the three Central American countries from which most of the unaccompanied minors are coming. Two of the children recently crossed the border and described being detained by the Border Patrol in perilous conditions, visibly moving many members of Congress.
Saul Martinez, 15, who was caught by Border Patrol agents along the Rio Grande in April, said he was detained for six days at a crowded facility without a bed or a blanket.
"Please don't mistreat children the way your country has treated me," the boy said through an interpreter.
With tears in her eyes, Mayeli Hernandez, 12, said through an interpreter that the border facility where she and her sister were held was extremely cold.
"People couldn't sleep. We had to sleep on the floor, and they only gave us a thin nylon blanket," Mayeli said. "It was very cold in there, and my little sister's lips even turned blue."
All three discussed escaping violence and poverty in their home countries and a fear of returning to their previous lives.
"We can't go back to our countries because they are very dangerous and very poor," Mayeli said. "For the first time, I am happy living here in the United States. My mom isn't sad all the time."
Dulce Medina, 15, immigrated from Guatemala five years ago. She now lives on Long Island and dreams of becoming a doctor and attending Stony Brook University.
"I do not want to go back to Guatemala because I am afraid there is no one to protect me," she said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called for an investigation into conditions at border detention centers. She also asked the children whether they had legal assistance while they were detained. When they answered that they did not, she and other representatives emphasized the need for more immigration judges and lawyers, arguing that the current House bill does not provide enough legal representation.
"During August recess, I hope there will be lawyers that go to the border, not just members of Congress," Norton said.