Senate Democrats and House Republicans are moving separately to slash President Barack Obama's $3.7 billion emergency spending request for the border, but they're unlikely to end up with a deal that could pass both chambers.
Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski planned to unveil legislation Wednesday allocating $2.7 billion for more immigration judges, detention facilities and other resources on the South Texas border, where tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have been arriving from Central America.
That amounts to a $1 billion reduction from Obama's request. But House Republicans were expected to go even further, with more limited spending that would be focused more heavily on enforcement provisions, including National Guard troops, than on caring for the youths. House Republicans were to discuss their legislation Wednesday and hear from a border task force appointed by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
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Most problematically, Mikulski, D-Md., said she was omitting from her legislation any changes to a 2008 trafficking victims law that critics say has contributed to the crisis by allowing Central American youths to stay in this country indefinitely while awaiting far-off court dates. Republicans are demanding changes in that law as the price for approving any money for the crisis and have said that will be an important part of their legislation in the House.
"I don't believe the American people will support sending more money to the border unless both parties work together to address these policies and actually solve this problem," Boehner said.
The result looks like a stalemate, with little time left to resolve it because Congress' annual August recess is just around the corner.
"Unfortunately, it looks like we're on a track to do absolutely nothing," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.
It comes even as Homeland Security officials plead for action, saying overstressed border and immigration agencies will run out of money in the next two months. "Doing nothing in Congress is not an option," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.
More than 57,000 minors have arrived since October, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The 2008 law guarantees them judicial hearings, which in practice allows them to stay in this country for years because of major backlogs in the immigration court system.
Republicans want the law changed so unaccompanied Central American children can be treated like those from Mexico, who can be sent back by Border Patrol agents unless they can demonstrate a fear of return that necessitates further screening. Republicans say that's the only way to send a message to parents in the Central American nations that there's no point in sending their children on the arduous journey north.
White House officials have indicated support for such changes but have sent mixed signals, under pressure from immigration advocates who say they would amount to sending kids fleeing vicious gang violence back home to their deaths. Some Democrats initially were open to such changes but most are now strongly opposed.
"I'm very reluctant to change the law because I think these children face death, murder, vicious abuse, persecution, if they are returned," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said.
Polls suggest the public is paying attention and demanding a solution, but lawmakers could not say where a compromise might lie.