By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Legislation to allow President Barack Obama more easily to deport thousands of Central American children who have migrated illegally appeared to gain steam in the U.S. Congress on Thursday as pressure grew to resolve a humanitarian crisis on the border.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner expressed support for changes to immigration law that would let the United States deport children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as quickly as it does those from Mexico.
U.S. law allows Mexican minors to be sent back promptly, although there are some steps those children can take to try to remain in the United States. A 2008 victims trafficking law requires that children from countries not bordering the United States, including those in Central America, be given added legal protections before they are deported.
“I think we all agree that the non-contiguous countries that now we’re required to hold those people, I think clearly we would probably want the language similar to what we have with Mexico,” Boehner told reporters.
In a letter to congressional leaders last week, President Barack Obama proposed giving the Department of Homeland Security additional authority to process the return and removal of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Obama, battling political pressure to halt the influx of child migrants along the Texas border with Mexico, has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address the crisis.
Many Democrats and immigration advocacy groups have strongly opposed changing the trafficking law, but congressional leaders indicated they might not block such legislation if it is tacked onto the spending bill.House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday she would prefer the law be changed to give Mexican children the same protections as those from Central America.
However, she said the issue should not stand in the way of quickly getting Obama the emergency funds he is seeking. Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic-controlled Senate, said he would not block an amendment to change the 2008 trafficking law, but would have to see what comes to the floor.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors from the three countries have been caught trying to sneak over the border since October, double the number from the same period a year earlier.
Both Democrats and Republicans have been pressing for changes to address the child migrant issue but the money is not guaranteed.
“We’re not giving the president a blank check,” said Boehner, leader of the Republican-controlled House.
The Senate Appropriations Committee scheduled a hearing on the request Thursday afternoon.
Boehner said the House should act on some sort of immigration legislation this month. He has formed a working group of lawmakers to study options.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, traveling with Obama in Texas, said the president was willing to negotiate on his request but noted it reflected the priorities Republicans have identified, including more immigration judges and additional border resources.
In prepared testimony for the Senate Appropriations hearing, the American Immigration Lawyers Association urged Congress not to erode legal protections for children.
“That could result in the immediate and tragic reality of children being thrown back into dangerous conditions where the potential for violence and abuse is high,” the group said.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Emily Stephenson and Steve Holland; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott and Dan Grebler)