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. Flake said he would like Congress to change the 2008 law.
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.
“What I will not do is vote for a blank check for the president for something that will not solve the problem,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
He and Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat, announced bipartisan legislation Tuesday that they said would speed up asylum hearings so the administration could quickly deport Central American children traveling alone. That is a power the administration currently uses only for Mexican children.
They said they received an early signal of support from Mr. Johnson. Though he hadn’t read the bill, the homeland security secretary told the lawmakers that it sounded like an improvement. It is garnering the support of some border-state House Democrats who say Mr. Obama needs to toughen enforcement.
But the rebellion by Mr. Reid and immigrant rights advocates shows the divisiveness of the immigration issue.
They said the U.S. should treat the surge of children as a refugee crisis, not an immigration issue, and they urged colleagues to reject the Cornyn-Cuellar proposal.
“This is not the middle ground. This is the deportation-only agenda dressed up in sheep’s clothing,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, who has taken leadership of the immigration issue for fellow House Democrats.
The illegal immigrant surge has, at least for now, turned immigration politics upside down. Democrats were mostly unified over legalizing most illegal immigrants, while Republicans endured a deep and bitter split. In the case of the children, Republicans appear unified and Democrats are torn over how tough to be in pushing for deportations.
In the meantime, the administration struggles with housing the children. It is keeping the locations of about 100 facilities secret. When word has leaked about the sites, protests have erupted.
The latest objections came from southern Arizona, where protesters planned to rally against a facility outside of Tucson.