Obama on a high wire on immigration law changes
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's call for additional authority to more quickly turn back young Central American border crossers is coming amid mounting resistance from some members of his Democratic Party to measures that could create shortcuts around the immigration court system.
Obama was meeting at the White House Wednesday with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as his administration is asking Congress to give the Department of Homeland Security the ability to speed up the removal of young people who are crossing the border in increasing numbers.
A memorandum from the Hispanic Caucus ahead of the meeting said members will address, quote, "the need to ensure due process protections for children are not rolled back."
At issue is a 2008 law that requires unaccompanied youths under the age of 18 who cross the border illegally to receive an immigration hearing, a process that is heavily backlogged and means that many wait months to years for their hearings. That provision does not apply to border crossers from Mexico, however. If captured, Mexicans can be returned promptly if a Border Patrol official determines that they are not eligible for asylum or status as refugees.
A plan by House Republicans and a bipartisan bill proposed by Texas lawmakers would change the law to allow Central Americans to be treated the same way as Mexicans.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office said she opposes those changes, a shift from last week when she said that changes to the 2008 law would not be a deal breaker on Obama request for $3.7 billion in emergency spending for the border. "If any changes to the 2008 law are made, they must ensure due process for these children," her spokesman, Drew Hammill, said.
The White House has not taken a position on the congressional proposals. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House would support changes that would speed up the removal of border crossers as long as their rights are protected, but the White House has not provided details on how that could work.
"Should Congress pass a new law? Should Congress pass a law that replaces the 2008 law? Should Congress pass a piece of legislation that would modify the enforcement or implementation of the 2008 law? What I have said is that is Congress' job to determine," Earnest said. "If Congress chooses a path along those lines that results in the secretary of Homeland Security getting the kind of authority he needs to exercise his own discretion to enforce the law more efficiently and do that in a way that continues to respect the basic due process rights of these individuals, then we would be happy with that."
Much of the $3.7 billion in emergency spending Obama is seeking to address the border crisis would be used to increase enforcement at the border and to provide additional facilities to house unaccompanied minors, most of whom come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said he and others told Pelosi in a meeting with lawmakers and advocates last week that there was strong opposition to changing the 2008 law, a point he said he reiterated in a full House Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday.
Gutierrez and other Hispanic caucus members planned to press Obama on the issue later Wednesday. He said they will not support any emergency spending for the border if it's attached to rollbacks to the 2008 trafficking law.
"If we change the policy what we are saying to the criminal enterprise that exploits children - there is no punishment for you," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez also criticized the White House's negotiating strategy for indicating openness to changing the law early on.