WASHINGTON -- Progressives in Congress are fighting back against growing calls to change laws meant to protect unaccompanied minors, but are up against a president, Republicans and even some Democrats who say doing so may be necessary to solve the current border crisis.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus adopted a proposal on Wednesday evening to deal with the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally, and it specifically says existing laws on unaccompanied children should remain intact.
They called to protect asylum laws, which others have said are plagued with fraud from people seeking to stay in the country.
"To see politicians oversimplifying this desperate plea for help as an immigration enforcement issue is concerning, and to see their willingness to weaken the protections of the [2008 law on unaccompanied minors] is even more so," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement. "We must place the well being of these kids first. We should allow the protections in our existing laws to play their intended role."
The government has been scrambling to deal with the rapid influx of young immigrants crossing the border illegally in recent months, in part because of a 2008 law that allows unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada to go through more extensive immigration hearings. That means they can't be deported as rapidly, particularly given a backlog in immigration courts, and instead by law must be placed with family members or others as they await immigration hearings.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday requested funding meant to speed up deportations, but he also plans to push for changes to the 2008 law to give the Department of Homeland Security more flexibility to handle cases of unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries the same way as it does those from Mexico and Canada.
Many members of Congress, particularly Republicans, have said the 2008 law must be changed. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced an amendment on Wednesday -- joined by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), David Vitter (R-La.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) -- that would change the law.
The calls are also coming from the Democratic side, although to a lesser extent. Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar is planning to introduce a similar bill. The House working group slated with recommending a solution to the border crisis released a statement on Wednesday saying any efforts "will require a revision" of the 2008 law.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said during a Wednesday press conference that he would support changing the law, but he did not get into specifics.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a separate Wednesday press conference that she does not support modifying the 2008 law, but said "it's not a deal breaker" given the urgency of getting the funding. She said the caucus isn't divided on that point, although she acknowledged there is at least "one dissident voice."
"If that's the face-saver for them, let them have their face-saver," she said of those demanding changes in order to approve funding. "But let us have the resources to do what we have to do."
The Progressive Caucus, which is co-chaired by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), said in its recommendations that the "response must recognize that this is largely a refugee crisis and must place the best interest of the children first."
The caucus also called for improved conditions in facilities holding unaccompanied minors, and for a DHS report on allegations of mistreatment and screenings to be made by appropriately trained agents. They also said that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the part of the Department of Health and Human Services that cares for unaccompanied minors, should ensure children are placed with family as often as possible, and should not consider the relative's legal status in making that determination. All decisions should be made by considering the best interest of the child, they said.
"Failed coordination and misplaced resources have amplified the crisis on the southern border and has led to inadequate care and conditions for unaccompanied immigrant children," the Progressive Caucus wrote in its report. "These children are more than just numbers."
UPDATE: 1:30 p.m. -- Drew Hammill, Pelosi's communications director, sent a statement to clarify her position on the 2008 law.
“What the Republicans want to do to modify current law goes in the wrong direction," he said. "In the Leader’s view and as she stated today, we should change the law to treat Mexican children the same as we now treat children from Central America. But if any changes to the 2008 law are made, they must ensure due process for these children.”