House Democrats are growing increasingly concerned about Republican calls to revise a 2008 human trafficking law in exchange for approving President Barack Obama’s $3.8 billion supplemental funding request to address the child migrant crisis at the Southwest border.
Liberals are doubling down on their efforts to fight for passage of what they call a "clean" supplemental, as some of their colleagues signal they are open to making concessions.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at her weekly news conference Thursday that revisiting the 2008 trafficking law was "not a deal breaker" when it came to her vote on the funding request, with Obama having already said he was open to it, too.
But at a Friday immigration-focused news conference convened by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, members directed their ire at fellow CHC colleague, Rep. Henry Cuellar. The Texas Democrat plans to introduce legislation that would change a provision in the 2008 act, known as the "William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act," to allow all children apprehended at the border to opt to voluntarily return to their home countries rather than await deportation hearings. The law currently permits only children from countries "contiguous" to the United States to "self-deport," and broadening that permission would address overcrowding at detention centers, among other things, Cuellar and other proponents argue.
Democrats by and large oppose the move, arguing it would strip existing law of crucial protections to shield youth from exploitation, abuse and harm.
“Henry Cuellar does not represent the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” CHC Chairman Rep. Rubén Hinojosa told reporters. “He’s a Blue Dog. He comes to the meetings once in a long time and what you are hearing now is a unanimous voice of those who have been participating in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.”
Nearly a dozen CHC members — all Democrats — participating in the new conference said they strongly support passing a policy rider-free supplemental and disapproved of any potential compromise that would alter the 2008 law. There are 26 CHC members.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois, one of Democrats' most vocal members on immigration issues who has never hesitated to criticize his party, or the president, stopped short of saying that the CHC would oppose a supplemental with built-in conditions.
“We should cross those bridges when we get there,” he said, adding that he personally would only back a "clean" bill and that he will not be voting for any funding package that included changes to the trafficking law. He views the proposed change as abdicating the rights of children established in other legislation in 2002, 2007 and 2008. In an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" that will air Sunday, Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona said he was fearful of the repercussions should Democrats not stand united against changes to the 2008 trafficking law. Grijalva is also CHC immigration task force member. "The law has become the negotiating middle ground for whether or not the president gets what he needs and wants for those agencies in terms of the supplemental," Grijalva told journalists from CQ Roll Call and The Washington Post joining C-SPAN for the interview.
"I think that's a mistake. ... Mr. Cuellar is already supporting that concept of eliminating that law," he continued, "and I worry that that by us not being firm on that human trafficking law that everybody voted for, even the most ardent-anti-immigrant, anti-reform folks in the Congress — [Iowa Republican Rep.] Steve King voted for that — at this point I think it is a step backwards and it jeopardizes support for the supplemental on the other end, and I count myself in that category."
Speaking with CQ Roll Call following the news conference, Gutierrez said in addition to the meeting that CHC members anticipate having with Obama in the days ahead, caucus members would be making the rounds to fortify a united position on Capitol Hill against potential policy riders in the supplemental that would be tantamount to "poison pills" for Democrats.
"We're going to meet with the Black Caucus, we're going to meet with the Progressive Caucus. We're going to meet with one caucus after another," he said. "And let me just tell you: The Democratic Caucus members, they've all come to me. They've all said, 'We can't allow [Republicans] to undermine the law. We're the party to protecting children.'"
Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, told CQ Roll Call that the 42-member strong contingent did not yet have a position on the issue.
“I’m going to wait ‘til he reaches out, see what he says,” Fudge said. “We have not discussed it.”
Meanwhile, Democrats await word from Republicans on what the supplemental funding package will actually look like, anticipating it will indeed include riders and recommendations from a special GOP border crisis task force that will present its first report to the Republican Conference Tuesday.
Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., would not hint at any substantive details, but did give one clue as to what members might expect: Less money.
The $3.8 billion ask from the president is simply "too much," Rogers told reporters Friday. Emily Ethridge contributed to this report.
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