WASHINGTON — Lawmakers racing against the clock to pass a legislative package that would address the surge in unaccompanied children at the border were dealt a major setback when the House of Representatives scrapped a vote on a bill due to lack of support and Senate legislation was blocked by Republican opposition.
Fissures and dissension have been apparent in President Barack Obama’s own party as the issue has been debated, but with the relatively modest $659 million legislation seemingly stymied in the GOP-led House, the chances of a deal making it out of Congress before lawmakers leave for a monthlong recess appear slim.
In an unusual step, House Speaker John Boehner delayed the August recess, which had been scheduled to begin on Friday, and House Republicans agreed to stay in Washington and meet Friday morning to see if they could find a bill that could pass.
Later on Thursday, Republicans blocked Senate legislation that would have given Obama $2.7 billion to deal with tens of thousands of Central American migrant children amassing at the southwestern U.S. border.
By a vote of 50–44, 10 short of the 60 needed, the bill failed to clear a procedural hurdle. Republicans objected to the cost of the measure and complained that it would not be effective in discouraging rising undocumented migration of children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The House package, put together by GOP leadership, was dramatically pared down from the $2.7 billion package Senate Democrats had proposed and the $3.7 billion that Obama had originally requested to address the growing humanitarian crisis at the border. It still did not attract enough votes among conservative Republicans to make it across the finish line.
The crux of the disagreement comes both from the size of the package and the question of whether to amend a 2008 anti-trafficking law, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which requires children from countries other than Canada and Mexico to appear before an immigration judge and consult an advocate before they can be sent back to their home countries.
The dramatic rise in unaccompanied minors has been traced by some to this law, passed quietly by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and anti-trafficking advocates in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, which they claim inadvertently encourages parents from Central America to send their children to the United States alone. Indeed, with a backlogged legal system, some children will have to wait in shelters or stay with family members for a full year before receiving a hearing.
Congressional Republicans were more or less united in demanding that the legislation be amended to speed the return of Central American children back to their home countries as part of any eventual deal, while Hill Democrats as well as immigration activists were insistent that the law be left out of these negotiations.
Complicating matters, the White House itself had initially signaled in early July that it would like to change the 2008 law to speed up the process of sending back child migrants.
“People in Central America need to see illegal migrants coming back,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. “We’re asking — and this will be in a separate submission — for the ability to treat unaccompanied kids from Central America in the same way we would the kids from a contiguous country.”
But the White House soon found itself having to back away from the proposal, facing an insurrection from people who are typically allies.
“We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said at a meeting of the National Governors Association two weeks ago, drawing an angry rebuke from administration officials. “They should have their ability to make their case for protection and asylum in the United States.”
“Forcibly and hurriedly returning people in need of international protection back to the dangerous situations they fled without adequate due process would undermine our obligations under international law and our position as a global humanitarian leader,” said a letter from 300 faith leaders and reform activists to Obama and Congress.
Similarly, many members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus registered their protest, indicating that they would not vote for a bill that would threaten children’s due process under current law, with House and Senate Democratic leaders soon following suit.
“We have an emergency situation that needs to be addressed,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters last week. “I do not think these children should be held hostage for a discussion that should be taking place over here.”
Now Congress and the White House appear to have arrived at the same place they have on a whole host of other issues — an impasse.
“We don’t want a back-door version of bad immigration reform,’’ said Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on the Senate floor, introducing the legislation last week. ‘‘This bill, Mr. President, is only a money bill.’’
The House, meanwhile, unveiled its version on Tuesday, appropriating only $657 million to the crisis and mandating that children receive a hearing within a week of being stopped by Border Patrol agents. The White House had threatened to veto that package anyway.
"Republicans have had more than a year to comprehensively fix the Nation's broken immigration system," the administration said in a statement, "but instead of working toward a real, lasting solution, Republicans released patchwork legislation that will only put more arbitrary and unrealistic demands on an already broken system."