House Republicans introduced a bill Tuesday to make it easier to deport the surge of children crossing the border illegally and included just enough money to house and care for the children through September — far less than what President Obama wanted.
The bill sets up a high-stakes legislative match between Republicans and Senate Democrats, who have called for five times as much money and rejected proposed changes to the 2008 law that would make it easier to deport the children.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said if Republicans insist on changing the 2008 law, he may counter by forcing a full-blown debate that would include legalizing most illegal immigrants in the U.S.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said his chamber would never accept such legislation.
"Let me be as clear as I can be with Sen. Reid: The House of Representatives will not take up the Senate immigration reform bill or accept it back from the Senate in any fashion," Mr. Boehner said. "Such measures have no place in the effort to solve this crisis, and any attempt to exploit this crisis by adding such measures will run into a brick wall in the People's House."
The heated rhetoric underscored the dramatic political stakes at play: Democrats fear angering immigrant rights advocates and Hispanic voters who want fewer deportations, while Republicans sense a chance to regain footing on an issue that has bedeviled them for years.
The latest polling gives the Republican policy the edge. An Associated Press-GfK survey indicated that two-thirds of Americans say the law should be changed to send the children home quickly, and showed illegal immigration climbing up the list of problems the public wants to be resolved.
Most Americans still support offering illegal immigrants already in the U.S. a path to citizenship, such as the one Mr. Reid has threatened to attach to the border spending bill. Even there, though, the poll showed support is slipping.
In addition to changing the deportation law, the House Republicans' bill would waive environmental policies and allow Border Patrol agents to post lookouts and pursue illegal immigrants across sensitive federal lands. It also would prohibit storing the children on military bases unless certain conditions are met and ban those with drug-related convictions on their records from earning asylum.
"This border problem has been exacerbated by the president's current immigration policies, and it will be up to the White House to take the lead in reversing the flow of illegal immigrants into our country," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and the bill's author. "The funding included in the bill today will provide the tools necessary for our agency personnel to ensure immediate needs are met, but the administration must implement changes to their border policies and fully enforce existing immigration law if we are to adequately address this crisis."
Democratic leaders labeled the Republican proposal inhumane, given the poverty and gang violence that many of the children are fleeing.
"We must have a heart and look into our souls to guide us in our treatment of these desperate children," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
She said proposed changes to the 2008 law would remove an important protection for children and that Congress should include money to pay for lawyers to represent the children as they go through the complex immigration court process.
Under the 2008 law, children from Mexico and Canada can be deported quickly, but those from other countries must be processed and held by social workers until they can be turned over to relatives or guardians in the U.S., where they stay for years while awaiting a judge's deportation decision.
Smugglers have used that situation to encourage Central Americans to send their children on the journey. They argue that the delay in deportations gives the children a chance to gain a foothold in the U.S.
The House bill would treat all children in the U.S. illegally the same as Mexicans and Canadians, which would make the Central Americans easier to deport.
Mr. Obama said several weeks ago that he supported changes to the 2008 law, but backed off under intense pressure from immigrant rights advocates and now calls the House bill partisan.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama wants more flexibility in enforcing the 2008 law but doesn't want to set firm deadlines for deciding cases and deporting children.
"So rather than granting the administration additional flexibility to more effectively enforce the law, it actually — it puts in place arbitrary constraints that make the enforcement of that law more difficult, and that's what our concern is," Mr. Earnest said.
Not all Republicans support the House bill.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said the House legislation amounts to a surrender to Mr. Obama because it doesn't overturn some of his policies that allow most illegal immigrants in the U.S. to avoid deportation.
He also said it doesn't fix an asylum and refugee system that approves dubious applications.
All sides are racing a self-imposed deadline at the end of the week, which is when lawmakers plan to leave Capitol Hill for a monthlong recess.
Senate Democrats have scheduled a filibuster test vote for Wednesday on their proposal, which would direct nearly $4 billion to house and care for illegal immigrants but lacks the key policy changes that Republicans are seeking.
The Senate bill is unlikely to pass its own chamber, leaving the House bill as the main focus of the debate.
House Republicans are likely to hold a vote on their bill Thursday, then leave senators with a take-it-or-leave-it option before they adjourn.
Mr. Reid hinted Tuesday that he would try to offer as an amendment the Senate immigration bill, which passed last year. It would legalize most illegal immigrants and give them a long-term path to citizenship.
But the four Republicans who helped write that bill issued a joint statement Tuesday evening saying they wouldn't support that move. Without their votes, Mr. Reid has little hope of succeeding.
"It is obvious that Majority Leader Reid's suggestion that the Senate could include comprehensive immigration reform in its border crisis bill is a blatant attempt to scuttle House Republicans' good-faith efforts to pass legislation addressing the issue this week," said the joint statement from Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Marco Rubio of Florida.
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