Lawmakers Clash Over Fix for Border Crisis

Central Americans board a northbound freight train in Ixtepec, Mexico, last week. The number of minors detained at the U.S. border has surged. Associated Press

WASHINGTON—A partisan tug of war over President Barack Obama’s request for funds to tackle the surge of young migrants at the border intensified Thursday, casting fresh doubts about Congress’s ability to reach a deal before its August break.

In the House, Republicans were drafting legislation that would give President Barack Obama far less money than he requested to deal with the unexpected surge in young migrants, adding another hurdle to resolving the increasingly polarized debate. Democrats largely support granting in full Mr. Obama’s $3.7 billion request to shore up the immigration system and border security in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors, more than Republicans appear ready to allocate.

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At the same time, Republicans back the administration’s proposal to change a 2008 anti-trafficking law seen as slowing the process of determining which border-crossers can remain in the country. Many Democrats have balked at changing the law out of concerns over scaling back legal protections for migrants.

Adding to the tension, some Republicans are pushing for additional policy changes opposed by many Democrats. On Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) introduced legislation aimed at preventing Mr. Obama from expanding his contentious 2012 move to protect from deportation some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) criticized the idea, saying the president’s action had helped keep families together and shouldn’t be undercut as “ransom for helping our Border Patrol care for desperate children.”

With no compromise in sight, both chambers planned to move forward with their own, partisan legislation to deal with the border crisis, amid ebbing hopes for a deal before lawmakers recess for their August break.

“I don’t have as much optimism as I’d like to,” House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said about the prospects of approving legislation by August. “There’s just been some comments from our colleagues across the aisle that are going to make this much more difficult to deal with.”

In the House, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.) wouldn’t specify the proposed funding of a bill to deal with the border through year-end, but said it would be significantly less than what Mr. Obama requested. If more money is needed next year, lawmakers could handle that through the next fiscal year’s spending bills, Mr. Rogers said. Republicans said they were still determining whether there was a way to offset the bill’s cost with spending cuts elsewhere.

Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, one of seven Republicans in a GOP immigration working group, said lawmakers were looking at tightening security by giving Border Patrol agents freer access to federal land. Currently, agents must ask permission to undertake certain activities on federal land in order to comply with environmental and other laws.

Republicans also are hoping to expedite the legal process so that migrants apprehended at the border see a judge within roughly a week and would be detained until then. Currently, many migrants are released while they await a court date years away. “There’s not going to be catch and release,” Mr. Salmon said of the migrants. All border-crossers would appear for their court dates, “because they’re never let go. That’s a big change.”

In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) is expected to introduce legislation granting the president’s $3.7 billion request without changes to the 2008 anti-trafficking law, according to a Senate Democratic aide. Under that law, children who arrive unaccompanied from nations other than Mexico or Canada must have their cases heard in immigration court, which is often a lengthy process. In arguing that those children should face speedier dispositions, as do those now from Mexico, Mr. Obama’s position is much closer to that of congressional Republicans than to many Democrats.

A senior administration official said Thursday the White House wants the ability to offer Central American children a “voluntary return” as soon as they are apprehended by Border Patrol, as Mexican children are now. That allows a migrant to return to his or her country without a formal deportation order. The White House also is seeking some sort of “expedited removal” for Central American children who don’t have a “credible claim” that would allow them to stay under U.S. law.

In an effort to equalize the treatment of all unaccompanied minors, Mexican children potentially could be given more legal rights, the official said.