WASHINGTON, D.C.–A working group of lawmakers appointed by Speaker John Boehner is poised to recommend deploying the National Guard, amending a 2008 law requiring a lengthy deportation process, bringing in temporary judges to reduce a legal backlog and new border security measures to the GOP version of an emergency spending bill planned for floor consideration before the August recess.
Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), the leader of the working group, briefed Republicans at a closed-door meeting Tuesday, reporting on their trip to Guatemala and Honduras over the weekend where they met with each country’s president and from which tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are streaming across the southern U.S. border.
“The presidents of both countries, I met with them, our group met with them, they want their children back,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘please, send our children back!'” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), a member of the working group and a key conservative lawmaker.
On the trip, the group was briefed by U.S. general John Kellly on the Mexico-Guatamala border. While witnessing individuals openly swim across the river border there, Kelly told lawmakers that drug cartels – some involved in financing terrorism operations – were directing and reaping the profits from sophisticated smuggling operations that had advertised the leniency of U.S. laws.
“There’s no doubt that the message went out, go cross the border now, the United States won’t do anything about it,” Granger told reporters after briefing colleagues. “That came, primarily, from the coyotes who were transporting these kids. These coyotes, it’s really something we weren’t prepared from, they sort of advertised – they actually advertise – as social workers. We’re going to help you take your kids out of the poverty and the danger they have in these countries and put ‘em in the United States where they will receive an education and be taken care of.”
Granger said she was surprised to learn that in Guatemala coyotes are charging between $6,000-$9,000 per person. Salmon said the group was told one coyote was making $50,000 a week smuggling children into the United States.
Since October more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained illegally crossing the southern border into the U.S. The vast majority of the illegal minors are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Last week President Obama requested $3.7 billion in emergency appropriations to deal with the crisis, but Republicans have rejected the figure and set about crafting their own response.
“In terms of priorities, we’re on different planets,” Salmon said about the president’s border ask.
At a press conference following the meeting, Boehner himself was circumspect about his views on how to address the issue. Asked about his ideas for addressing the crisis, Boehner said “I’ve got lots of them.”
Rep. Hal Rogers, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who is in charge of crafting the actual legislation to be considered on the House floor, declined to say how much the GOP bill would spend, but said it would be less than the $3.7 billion the president has asked for.
“Well, we’re trying to put together a bill, first off, that makes sense and we can afford and does the right thing – humanitarian-wise and regarding the border,” Rogers said. “I am hopeful as we go along that this will become a bipartisan effort – and bicameral.”
He noted that the goal is to pass the bill before the August recess.
In the hours before the working group makes its final policy recommendations, the key issue still under discussion are proposals to help secure the border. One option under discussion is language from a bill sponsored by working group member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
The bill has drawn fire from key immigration hawks, including the Heritage Foundation and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
McCaul said the bill was under discussion for inclusion in the proposal.
“Border security is part of this – a big part of this. The McCaul bill is going to be a big factor, that’s all I can tell you,” said Rep. John Carter (R-TX), another member of the working group.
“I think border security issues are going to be part of it,” Salmon said. “Whether it’s going to be that language or some other language remains to be seen.”
On the general approach of the group’s policy recommendations, McCaul said “We want to swiftly and humanely return them to their home. Only until we do that will we stop the flow. So we need a message of deterrence. We need to look at more border security measures. We’re going to need a surge of judges, whether it be retired judges or special masters to process these cases more expeditiously, because it takes four or five years now. We’re looking at all of those components and working with the countries of origin in terms of their capacity to take these kids back, and also with Mexico and Guatemala to help secure their southern border so they can’t make that journey through Mexico.”
He added, that as Boehner and others have pushed, the group will “certainly” be including the deployment of the National Guard in its proposal. Granger said that the National Guard proposal will be an important factor.
“We’ve got border patrol people trying to do a good job but they’re so overwhelmed by the number of people coming across that they’re taking care of children and filling out forms, and so we need National Guard to add more bodies to what’s happening at the border” Grander said, adding that immigration cases need to be adjudicated much more quickly.
“An average case with someone coming across the border illegally, going through the process we have will take between a year and half to as long as five years. Well with 57,000 unaccompanied children, that’s just unacceptable,” she continued. “So we’ve got to change that. Which means, changing not the process so much but adding the people that help with that process – more judges to hear those cases, there’s some – not adding permanent, but often time retired judges. There are different categories that can do that to make sure that that goes faster.”
Salmon reiterated the need to “plug the holes” with the National Guard, where Border Patrol has been moved to deal with children.
“It’s not that you have to have more people to catch them. But the cartels are playing bait and switch,” he said. “Make no mistake, it is the cartels that are basically overseeing these coyotes that are smuggling in the people and they are making a ton of money off of this.”
After the House GOP Conference meeting, members of the working group said they were on their way to meet with Department of Homeland Security Sec. Jeh Johnson.
The working groups’ recommendations will come as Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) works with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) on a separate bill to deal with the crisis by, in part, change a 2008 human trafficking law that has made removing unaccompanied minors from Central America very difficult.
The pair’s legislation would, according to Cornyn, “improve the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008, treating all unaccompanied minors equally and ensuring Due Process under the law in a timely, fair manner.”
According to Brady, the bipartisan bill has been “well-received” and many Republicans have pointed to the 2008 law as ripe for tweaks. Indeed, Salmon, one of the most conservative members on the working group, introduced a bill to alter the law last week.
However, the bill is drawing scrutiny from conservative outside groups who are anxious about the details of legislation drafted and enacted in a crisis environment.
Matthew Boyle contributed reporting.