Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met with moderate Democrats Monday night to discuss the immigration crisis on the Texas border. And while the lawmakers did not emerge united on President Barack Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding or with an agreement on new legislation to expedite the return of Central American minors, Johnson called the discussions "productive."
After the meeting, Johnson said the administration was committed to finding a response to the influx of children coming over the border that is "humanitarian and consistent with our laws and our values." The first order of business, Johnson said, was approving the $3.7 billion supplemental funding request to address the situation — a request Johnson said Congress should "scrutinize and review ... carefully." "And I believe that members will recognize that in order to address this issue, it requires supplemental funding," Johnson said.
Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader, who attended the meeting, told reporters the Homeland Security secretary said the administration is looking to address the crisis through statutory changes that require congressional action.
One legislative plan is being pushed by Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who was in attendance Monday night. The Laredo congressman has proposed legislation with fellow Texan Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn to change the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. Johnson said he had seen the talking points of the bill, but he hadn't studied the actual legislation yet, so discussion on that topic was limited. On Monday evening, in addition to giving Johnson information on the bill, Cuellar and Cornyn briefed reporters on their proposal.
Their bills, slated for formal introduction on Tuesday, would allow all unaccompanied minors apprehended at the southwest border to volunteer for removal back to their home countries rather than await trial, regardless of whether they are from "contiguous" countries to the United States or elsewhere in Central America. The measures also would significantly expedite the process by which the authorities determine whether to grant child migrants asylum status.
Cuellar and Cornyn said the changes to the 2008 trafficking law are appropriate and necessary for addressing overcrowding at detention facilities and helping overburdened law enforcement officials.
Opponents have countered that the 2008 act was intended to prevent children from returning to countries where they would not be safe, and also that expedited legal proceedings wouldn't give minors claiming refugee status enough time to prepare to make their cases — or give judges enough resources to make sound decisions.
Cornyn told reporters on Monday that the line of questioning at deportation hearings would be sufficiently narrow. "This is not the O.J. Simpson trial," he quipped.
The senior senator from Texas said that neither lawmaker had begun to reach out to colleagues to sign on as co-sponsors, but both members suggested that the goal was not to see their bills moved independently through the legislative process, but rather to have the language folded into the Obama administration's emergency supplemental request of $3.7 billion currently pending on Capitol Hill.
The House is the more likely of the two chambers to be amenable to working with that language. Cuellar has been making inroads with the GOP, specifically members in positions of influence in dealing with the border surge who have already signaled an interest in revisiting the 2008 trafficking law as a means to address the crisis.
Cuellar is paying special attention to members of the GOP-only working group charged with making policy recommendations on the border crisis to the full conference, with its first findings report to be presented tomorrow morning. His most recent excursion with group members was over the weekend, to Honduras and Guatemala, and a fellow Democrat and appropriator, David E. Price of North Carolina, came along, too.
"I got to spend Friday to a couple hours ago" with task force members, Cuellar told reporters. "It is up to them to make the recommendations. I can't speak for the task force, but yes, we have spoken to them."