WASHINGTON — Outlines of a possible compromise that would more quickly deport minors arriving from Central America emerged Thursday as part of President Barack Obama’s $3.7 billion emergency border request to address the immigration crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico.
The immigration crisis has given Republicans a new line of attack on Obama ahead of midterm congressional elections in November, and it has complicated the already rancorous debate over remaking the nation’s immigration laws.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have arrived since October even as tens of thousands more have arrived traveling as families, mostly mothers with their children. Many are trying to reunite with family members and to escape a spike in violence in their countries, but they also report hearing rumors that once here, they would be allowed to stay.
Republicans blame Obama policies aimed at curbing deportations of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children for contributing to those rumors, something Obama administration officials have largely rejected.
Republicans demanded speedier deportations, which the White House initially supported but left out of proposal after complaints from immigrant advocates and some Democrats. The top House and Senate Democrats pointedly left the door open to them.
“It’s not a deal-breaker,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, “Let them have their face-saver. But let us have the resources to do what we have to do.”
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said: “I’m not going to block anything. Let’s see what comes to the floor.”
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The current problem at the border comes at a time when the White House was seeking to cement an upper hand on the issue of immigration, particularly with Hispanic voters, who are increasingly crucial to electoral success in presidential elections. After House of Representatives Republicans made clear they had no plans to take up comprehensive legislation this year, Obama vowed to move forward with executive actions that would make needed changes to the nation’s broken immigration system.
But the border crisis has given Republicans fresh fodder to challenge that approach.
Reid and Pelosi made their comments after House Republican Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell both said they didn’t want to give Obama a “blank check” to deal with the crisis. Boehner and McConnell indicated policy changes would be necessary to win their support.
At issue is a law passed in 2008 to give protections to sex trafficking victims. The law requires court hearings for migrant youth who arrive in this country from “noncontiguous” countries — anywhere other than Mexico or Canada.
Opposition to changing that law arose late in the day from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a key Democratic senator, suggesting battles ahead before any deal could be struck.
Noting that the arriving migrants include young girls trying to escape sex violence and gangs, Leahy said: “I’m not sure Americans all really feel we should immediately send them back.”
Because of enormous backlogs in the immigration court system, the result in the current crisis is that kids streaming in from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are released to relatives or others in the U.S. with notices to appear at long-distant court hearings that many of them never will attend.
Republicans want the government to have the authority to treat Central American kids the same way as kids from Mexico, who can be removed quickly unless they convince Border Patrol that they have a fear of return that merits additional screening.
White House officials have said they support such changes and indicated last week that they would be proposing them along with the emergency spending request. But advocates objected strongly, saying kids would be denied legal protections, and the White House has not yet made a formal proposal.
Defending the emergency spending request at a Senate hearing, Obama’s Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, said he supported changing the law to treat children from Central American nations the same as those from Mexico.
“We want the flexibility in the current situation to have that discretion,” he said.
White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report from Dallas.