After more than a year of contentious debate, could Congress be any more divided over the issue of immigration? The answer is yes.
In the House, positions are hardening over what to do about the tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied young immigrants illegally crossing the southwestern border into the United States.
On one side are Republicans, and a few Democrats, who support changing a 2008 law that makes it impossible to quickly return the young immigrants to their home countries. On the other side is the House Democratic leadership, which after an initial period of waffling is now dead-set against such a change.
The House could quickly be headed toward a situation in which one side’s top priority is the other side’s deal-killer.
The 2008 law, formally known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, is a measure originally passed to fight sex trafficking of minors. For young people who come to the United States illegally from non-contiguous countries — that is, from anywhere other than Canada or Mexico — the law establishes an elaborate and very lengthy procedure in which the federal government is required to house the child, bring in experts to determine the child’s best interest, unite the child with any family members in the U.S., pay for the child’s legal representation and more — and only then, years later, to determine whether the child has an actual legal right to be in this country.
If, on the other hand, the child has come to the United States from Mexico — a contiguous country — he or she can be returned within 72 hours. One obvious fix for the current crisis would be to allow the government to treat children from Central America the same way the law allows officials to treat children from Mexico now.
That change is expected to be the centerpiece of a report from the House Republican immigration working group, appointed June 24 by Speaker John Boehner.
“I don’t know how you can address the problem down there without looking at the ’08 law,” Boehner told reporters recently. “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.”
Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger, who is heading the working group, told a Dallas TV station that “the first thing we need to do” is to change the 2008 law.
To many Democrats, however, that is the last thing we need to do. “I do not believe they need a change in legislation to more expeditiously provide due process for all of the children,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said recently. “I think this can be done under current law with the proper resources.”
Pelosi’s answer to the border influx is to provide more money to care for the illegal immigrants, plus more money for judges to handle their cases, and then more money for lawyers to represent the immigrants before those judges. The goal is to keep as many of the illegal border crossers as possible in the United States — and not return them to Central America.
“If you have a lawyer — we have a survey now — 50 percent of the time, the child can stay in the U.S.,” Pelosi said. “If you don’t have a lawyer, one in 10 times you can stay in the U.S. So representation is important.”
Pelosi’s position is shared by many House Democrats, and particularly by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which Pelosi said is taking a leading role in shaping Democratic policy on the crisis. (Caucus members have declared their support for safeguarding the immigrants’ “legal rights to due process provided under our current laws.”)
The question is whether some Democrats, particularly those from red states facing difficult re-election fights, might break with their party’s leadership and support a change in the 2008 law. Boehner needs their help. Even if a border bill includes a change, some Republicans will oppose it on grounds that it’s too expensive. That means the speaker will need Democratic votes to pass the bill. It’s not clear whether he’ll have enough.
“I would certainly hope so,” Boehner said when asked whether he believes a bill can be passed by next month. “But I don’t have as much optimism as I’d like to have.”
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.