A bipartisan duo of lawmakers has introduced a bill they hope will address the influx of unaccompanied minors at the southern border by changing a 2008 law that requires children coming from Central American countries to be treated differently than children that come from Mexico and Canada.
Under the 2008 law, border patrol officers can make a decision about whether an unaccompanied minor from Canada or Mexico can stay in the United States, but children from non-contiguous countries (or countries that do not share a border with the United States) must be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be housed and advised of their legal options.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, would like to change that law and implement an expedited process that applies to all unaccompanied children who cross the border. Called the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act, their bill would require that all unaccompanied children who entered the United States see an immigration judge within seven days of entering the country, after which the judge would determine whether the child could stay within 72 hours.
“Under the current practice they don’t routinely appear in front of a judge because they’re just issued an order to appear and they don’t show back up,” Sen. Cornyn told reporters on Monday. “So this would make sure they appear in front of an immigration judge by keeping them in what I would like to call protective custody for the seven days before the hearing.”
Cornyn says their bill would continue to have HHS house unaccompanied minors while they waited to appear in front of an immigration judge, and that HHS would still be encouraged to seek pro-bono legal counsel for those children. The bill would also authorize up to 40 new immigration judges to help with the influx of children and the backlog currently facing the system.
But the bill is sure to face staunch opposition from the vast majority of Democrats, who oppose changes to the 2008 law, saying it rolls back protections for children coming from violent situations in their home countries. House Republicans have indicated they intend to include similar changes to the 2008 law in any supplemental funding bill they pass in response to President Obama’s $3.7 billion request for emergency funds at the border.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said last week that they oppose these changes, and targeted Rep Cuellar specifically, telling reporters that “Henry Cuellar does not represent the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.”
"Let me just make it absolutely clear,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said last week, “I’m not voting for a supplemental bill that includes changes and abrogates the rights of children established in 2002, 7 and 8.”
Cornyn admitted that if his bill was implemented that a “majority” of children would be returned to their home countries because of the “narrow scope” that would allow for those children to stay.
“It’s not just, well, I couldn’t get a job back home, or my parents couldn’t take care of me, or it’s violent, all of which are very sad, but they would not justify an immigration judge ordering them to stay here,” Cornyn said. Cornyn’s office pointed out that the vast majority of children from Mexico chose an expedited return home instead of legal proceedings here in the United States.
But it’s becoming increasingly likely that whatever legislation Congress sends to President Obama to address the situation at the border will likely include some changes to the 2008 law. Cornyn told reporters that he could not support a supplemental spending bill that did not include some fix to the law, and he blamed internal politics on why President Obama did not include a similar provision in his request for emergency funds.
“I’m confident that the president decided not to include this part of the solution to his request because of internal political challenges he himself has had from people he’s promised the sun and the moon to, in terms of revisiting deportation policy even more broadly,” Cornyn said.
It’s unclear if the Cornyn/Cuellar bill will even see a vote in the House or Senate, but similar provisions will likely be included in whatever the House considers in the coming weeks. Currently, members of the House GOP border working group are looking at the President’s request for emergency funds and will work with the House Appropriations Committee to draft a piece of legislation to address the problems at the border, which many lawmakers hope to finish by the end of July.