Potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidates are showing divisions over how to handle the surge of illegal immigrant children, underscoring how quickly the immigration issue has gone from what they thought was a guaranteed political winner to an electoral headache.
Some Democratic governors considering presidential bids also are having to grapple personally with the surge as they decide whether to fight or accept the Obama administration’s requests to house the children in facilities within their borders.
Those within Congress, meanwhile, will have to take tough votes on boosting spending and changing the law to allow for faster deportations — all under the close scrutiny of Hispanic groups that are prepared to punish those they deem to be working against immigrant rights.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley sparked a feud with the Obama administration in recent days when he publicly called on President Obama not to send children back to their countries of origin but privately urged a White House official not to house them at a site in Maryland, either.
“What I said was that would not be the most inviting site in Maryland,” Mr. O’Malley told CNN on Wednesday. “There are already hundreds of kids already located throughout Maryland.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken a more enforcement-centered approach. She told a CNN-sponsored town hall last month that the children “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are.”
She said some children might have valid humanitarian reasons to stay but the key was to send a signal of tough enforcement.
“We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay,” she said. “So we don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. O'Malley and other potential Democratic presidential candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo likely will get other chances to revise and expand on their positions before the primaries and caucuses begin.
“This issue is not so much about their initial reaction or instinct, but how do they address this issue over time. If there were significant differences there, it could become an issue,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “It’s going to change 50 times between now and then. I think their thinking will evolve over time. Right now, we’re right in the midst of it.”
The Obama administration’s response to the crisis has been to request $3.7 billion from Congress to house the children, hire more immigration judges and try to speed up deportations.
Mr. Obama also has said he would support changing a 2008 law to give him power to hold and quickly deport unaccompanied children from Central America. It would give him the same authority he has for children from Mexico and Canada.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say they support the call for extra money to care for the children, but they are increasingly opposed to changing the 2008 law. They say it would just punish the children.
That could cause headaches for Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, another potential 2016 candidate who would have to back the president, at least publicly while serving in his administration.