CAPITOL HILL - The plight of tens of thousands of Central American children who have crossed over the southwest border into the United States this year continues to be the focus of heated debate in the U.S. Congress.
Republican leaders are expressing frustration with Democratic President Barack Obama for his handling of the crisis. At the same time, a number of religious leaders are calling on the president and lawmakers not to do away with legal protections for the children, many of whom are fleeing violence.
Obama sparked debate earlier this week when he asked the U.S. Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the influx of children crossing the U.S. border. Republican House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday afternoon that the house appropriations committee - which oversees spending measures - and a working group of lawmakers focusing on immigration issues are reviewing the proposal, but he added that the Republican-led House will not give the president a “blank check.”
Boehner reacted angrily to a question about whether Congress might be blamed for a worsening humanitarian crisis if it fails to approve the funds: “This is a problem of the president’s own making. He has been president for five and half years. When is he going to take responsibility for something?”
On a visit to the state of Texas, Obama rejected calls from a number of lawmakers for him to travel to the state's border to visit the holding cites for unaccompanied children. Speaking in Austin, the president blasted House Republicans for not holding a vote on immigration reform legislation, but did not address the crisis of child migrants.
Democratic Minority leader Nancy Pelosi called on the Republican leaders in the House to move quickly to approve the president’s emergency request. She indicated there may be some wrangling, though, between Democrats and Republicans before any agreement is reached.
“Really what is important is to get this supplemental. What price we have to pay to do that, we will see in the course of the debate,” said Pelosi.
Pelosi was asked if there would likely be changes made to an anti-human trafficking bill signed in 2008 that would make it easier to send Central American children back home. The measure gives children who are not from Canada and Mexico the legal right to stay in the United States until they are assigned a court date to hear their individual case. She said she does not support limiting legal protection for children.
A number of religious leaders also have called on the president and Congress to leave those legal protections in place in a national teleconference. Mary Small, with the Jesuit Refugee Service, said, “We cannot risk expediting the deportation of children back into the hands of traffickers, smugglers and criminal groups. And we as a nation cannot roll back protections simply because more children are in need of them than we thought.”
Bishop Minerva Carcano of the United Methodist Church in Los Angeles agrees, saying the migrant children already do not have the same rights as American children. “They are not provided with legal representation, and therefore run the risk of being deported without due process. If these children are returned to life jeopardizing circumstances, their possible early death will be on our conscience,” she said.
Speaking with the religious leaders, Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren said she visited holding centers in Texas last week and was deeply troubled by what she saw.
“Many, many young children crowded in jail like holding cells, including toddlers, some in diapers. These children were completely alone, they were sleeping on cement floors,” she said.
Lofgren said older children were taking care of the younger ones. She called on members of Congress to put their differences aside to help the children who have survived the long and dangerous journey from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to reach the United States.