CAPITOL HILL - The U.S. Senate has voted to begin debate on a bill authorizing funds to house and process tens of thousands of undocumented Central American minors arriving at America’s southern border with Mexico. The bill faces further hurdles in the Democratic-controlled chamber and has virtually no chance of passage in the Republican-led House of Representatives, casting doubt on congressional action days before lawmakers adjourn for a five-week recess.
The Senate bill would provide most of the $3.7 billion requested by President Barack Obama to address humanitarian, judicial and law enforcement needs along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin said the funds are urgently needed as Central American youths continue a perilous journey to the United States.
“President Obama has asked for resources to care for these children, to place them, to give them the right of seeking asylum if they can make that legal claim and, if not, to return them, humanely, to the countries they came from,” he said.
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The bill also would provide supplemental funds for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and boost federal resources to fight wildfires raging in several western U.S. states.
The Senate legislation contrasts sharply with a House bill that would provide a fraction of the funding, most of which would be used to boost U.S. border enforcement. The House proposal also would amend a 2008 law that entitles most underage undocumented arrivals to an immigration hearing.
Republican Senator John Cornyn said the law has served as a magnet for Central American youths, and the Senate bill does nothing to address the underlying cause of the crisis.
“As long as this magnet continues to exist, they will keep coming. It is the opposite of compassion to allow this loophole [in U.S. law] to exist,” he said.
Democrats counter that Central Americans are fleeing violence and lawlessness in their home countries, and that curtailing the legal rights of new arrivals will lead to the deportation of immigrants with legitimate asylum claims.
“We can address the humanitarian crisis without watering down our law." said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. "We do not have to turn our backs on our own basic values as Americans.”
Final passage of House or Senate bills is far from assured, and even if approved, both would almost certainly be voted down in the opposing chamber.
The stalemate illuminates yet again the challenge of getting a politically-divided, ideologically-polarized Congress to act -- even in the face of a situation lawmakers universally decry as intolerable.
On the broader topic of reforming America’s oft-criticized immigration system, many Republicans see Obama’s pledge to bypass Congress and act on his own as an abuse of power, a violation of existing immigration law, and a step toward a de facto open border policy. Democrats, including the president, point out that the Republican-led House has refused to vote on a Senate-approved overhaul of immigration laws that would have addressed a variety of ills, including the current border crisis.