Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate introduced legislation on Tuesday aimed at plugging a legal loophole that has allows unaccompanied immigrant children to stay in the United States for months and even years while their amnesty claims are sorted out.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) proposed the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act, which would amend a 2008 law that many say is making it harder to more quickly repatriate illegal immigrants.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) (center) has proposed a new bill aimed at fixing a legal loophole that has allowed thousands of immigrant children to stay in the U.S., in some cases for years. (AP Photo/The McAllen Monitor, Joel Martinez)
Under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, children from non-contiguous countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras cannot immediately be deported. Instead, they must be processed by the Department of Homeland Security, then sent to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.
That language has become troublesome in light of the roughly 60,000 unaccompanied children that have flooded across the southern U.S. border. The Cuellar-Cornyn bill would fix the problem by allowing border officials to treat children from non-contiguous countries the way they treat Mexican children.
It would also expedite the legal proceedings for children when they arrive, allowing for quicker deportations.
Last week, Cuellar became one of the rare Democrats who criticized President Barack Obama for failing to visit the border during a fundraising trip to Texas. Cuellar said he opposed Obama's request for $3.7 billion to add capacity for processing immigrant children until tougher steps were taken to close the border.
"We just can't just trust the President and say we are going to give you exactly every penny you want," he told CNN last week.
"The border region in Texas has been overwhelmed over the past few months by a deluge of undocumented immigrants from Central America," Cuellar said Tuesday. "This legislation strengthens current law protecting unaccompanied children and responds to the crisis while supporting the men and women of Border Patrol."
The Obama administration indicated a few weeks ago that it supported a change to the law to allow for faster deportations. But since then, it has not asked for that change, and has indicated it only wants temporary flexibilities to help implement the law.
That change seems to reflect Democratic opposition to making a legal change. Several Democrats said last week that the U.S. should not be looking to change the law, and should instead be looking to help the children — some have insisted that the children are refugees, and should not be treated as illegal immigrants.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he opposes the bill, a sign that it will be tough to move the legislation through the Senate.
In the House, the bill is cosponsored by Reps. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas). Cornyn's Senate bill is cosponsored by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).