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White House officials have said they support such changes and indicated last week that they would be offering them along with the emergency spending request. But immigration advocates objected strongly, saying children would be denied legal protections, and the White House has not yet made a formal proposal.

Asked Thursday about the issue, Johnson said he supported changing the law to treat children from Central American nations the same as those from Mexico.

“We want the flexibility in the current situation to have that discretion,” he said.

But in response to concerns voiced by Leahy and Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Johnson insisted that the kids still would be protected.

“A request for discretion, as long as I’m secretary, means a request for the ability to do the right thing,” he said.

The comment didn’t quiet Democrats’ concerns.

“You want flexibility. There’s danger in flexibility,” Harkin said. “The single most important thing is to take care of these kids.”

Advocates said they remained strongly opposed to such policy changes and expressed anger that after comprehensive immigration reform failed to advance in Congress this year, lawmakers may be headed toward a vote on deporting minors more quickly.

“They weren’t able to get immigration reform done in this Congress and this is going to be the only piece of immigration that gets done, a bill that says we’re going to deport children fleeing violence faster,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “If Democrats can’t stand up to this and be the party that’s protecting children and refugees, it’s a really sad day for the country.”

More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have arrived since October even as tens of thousands more have arrived traveling as families, mostly mothers with their children.

Many are trying to reunite with family members and to escape a spike in violence in their countries, but they also report hearing rumors that once here, they would be allowed to stay. Republicans blame Obama policies aimed at curbing deportations of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children for contributing to those rumors, something Obama administration officials have largely rejected.

The situation has complicated the already rancorous debate over remaking the nation’s immigration laws at a moment when Obama has declared legislative efforts to do so dead and announced plans to proceed on his own executive authority to change the flawed system where he can.

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AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace in Dallas contributed to this report.

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