A year after President Obama launched his failed campaign to pass sweeping immigration reform that would have granted millions of people a path to citizenship, Congress is preparing a bill that would do just the opposite. A bipartisan proposal by two Texas lawmakers would accelerate the deportations of tens of thousands of Central American children. And the president — who once called himself the “champion-in-chief of comprehensive immigration reform” — wants the power to make that happen.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) and Sen. John Cornyn (R) want to overturn a 2008 anti-trafficking law that some claim has played a central role in the crisis at the southern border, according to ABC News. Arizona Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain announced Thursday they are introducing legislation that includes similar language. The statute they seek to overturn prohibits unaccompanied Central American children caught at border from being repatriated immediately.
President Obama and members of both parties in Congress have called for new legal authority to oust undocumented Central American kids as quickly as those attempting to enter from Mexico.
“Why is there a difference for contiguous and non-contiguous countries?” Cuellar said Thursday on CNN. “Let's go ahead and treat every country the same the way we treat Mexico and Canada.”
The Bush-era law was designed to protect unaccompanied Central American children from falling prey to human-traffickers. It mandates that the children traveling without a parent or relative be placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and guarantees a court hearing to determine their legal status in the United States.
But the system was not prepared for the recent influx of migrant children. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador — have been apprehended at the border since last October. Thousands more have been caught traveling with adults. The wait times for court dates can last years, according to government officials.
Immigrant-rights advocates say that rolling back the current law and placing Central American children in expedited removal proceedings would violate their right to due process and deny many of them the chance to argue their cases for asylum.
Cuellar said his proposed reform would maintain safeguards for kids seeking asylum, while allowing the government to quickly remove those who don’t have legitimate claims to remain in the U.S.
“The protections of asylum, the protection of credible fear, the protection of being a victim of sex crime, none of those protections are touched,” he said on CNN. “They are there. They are going to remain.”
Faced with a growing crisis, Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders last month asking for “additional authority” to deport Central American children faster as part of a broad plan to stem the wave. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that can be done while also protecting due process. The administration is also asking Congress to provide money to fund additional immigration judges and asylum officials to handle the caseload.
"What this law did not contemplate is what we are seeing now along the southwest border," he said during a press briefing. "What we would like is for the Secretary of Homeland Security to exercise some greater discretion after the due process rights of those individuals have been acknowledged and respected."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a press conference Thursday that Republicans, “would probably want the language similar to what we have with Mexico.” A working group of House Republicans is developing on its own proposal to address the human trafficking law, according to the Speaker.
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House’s top Democrat, said Thursday she does not endorse expediting the deportation of Central American children, but hinted that might be the political price for getting enough votes to pass Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address the crisis. The package has run into resistance from Republicans, who have said they won’t hand Obama a “blank check.”
If Obama gets his way, speeding up deportations of Central American minors could make it easier for the government to handle the record wave of kids. But it also risks further complicating the president’s checkered legacy on immigration.
Obama has overseen more than 2 million deportations during his presidency; undocumented immigrants have been removed at a faster pace under Obama than any other president. That earned him the moniker “deporter-in-chief” from some immigrants-rights advocates.
But for months, the administration has been reviewing ways to make its deportation policies more humane. Obama placated embittered activists late last month when he announced he would move ahead with executive action to make fixes to the immigration system.
Those same advocates, however, say Obama would now be taking a backwards step if he reverses the 2008 law.
“That would be a real retreat from our basic values of due process and fairness,” said Karen Tumlin, managing attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “We as a nation should be very careful that we’re not returning kids into harm’s way.”
A group of liberal Democrats in Congress is pressing Obama to keep the current anti-trafficking law intact.
Despite his track record, President Obama insists he still wants to see immigration reform passed this year — something House Republicans have refused to do since the Senate bill passed last year.
“I will just repeat that if we got a comprehensive bill done, it doesn't just solve this problem for a year; it solves it potentially for 20 years,” he said in Texas on Wednesday.
But in the end, his legacy won’t be defined by what he hoped to do. It will be defined by the what he did.
This post was updated to include comment from the White House.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.