Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pronounced the southwestern border “secure” Tuesday, rejecting a bipartisan push to strengthen enforcement and swiftly deport many of the children surging across the border illegally.
The Nevada Democrat captured a growing rebellion among immigrant rights groups and liberal lawmakers, who say the solution to the surge is more spending to house and care for the children, not a change in law that would speed up deportations, nor adding more resources to supplement the Border Patrol.
“The border is secure,” Mr. Reid told reporters after Democrats received a briefing from one of their own, Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
Even the Obama administration’s Homeland Security Department no longer agrees with that assessment. Secretary Jeh Johnson has shied away from that declaration and has told advocates privately that he knows he has a problem on the border.
Mr. Reid’s comments signal that Congress is likely headed for gridlock as it grapples with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, and nearly as many families, who have surged across the border this year, fleeing violence and poverty in Central America and banking on the belief that they can gain a foothold in the U.S.
Gridlock would leave the matter solely in President Obama’s hands. Lawmakers from both parties are increasingly saying the president has authority to handle the situation on his own.
Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said a 2008 law gives Mr. Obama discretion in “exceptional circumstances” to keep the children in custody rather than release them to their parents or foster families in the U.S., which is what is happening to most of them.
Mr. Flake also said the president can shorten the court cases that often last years before a child is deported, merely by having government attorneys object to continuances in court.
“The president has the discretion and the authority to act within the law and to follow the law and to offer the right incentives so that we don’t have this situation continuing,” Mr. Flake said.
Mr. Reid rejected that idea, but he, too, said Mr. Obama already has legal discretion to speed up deportations.
“There’s leeway there that the executive branch of government doesn’t need new legislation,” he said.
The White House has acknowledged that the law gives the president flexibility, though a spokesman said he would prefer to have guidance from Congress.
Mr. Obama last week asked for $3.7 billion in emergency spending that he said would solve the matter, but Republicans said he has asked for too much to house the illegal immigrants and not enough to enforce the laws.
They want him to do more to speed up deportations — a move they said would send signals back to Central America that there are no permisos, or free passes, for those who jump the border.