Obama's Request For Immigration Funds Meets Pushback On The Hill

President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address the influx of immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Senate Appropriations Committee is holding a hearing Thursday about the request.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In this part of the program - the surge of migrants across the border and the debate in Washington over what to do. Today, the Senate Appropriations Committee took up President Obama's request for $3.7 billion. The money is intended to deal with the influx of Central American children entering the U.S. alone. Testifying today were the heads of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, Jeh Johnson and Sylvia Mathews Burwell. NPR's Ailsa Chang has been following the discussion on Capitol Hill and joins us now. And Ailsa, how much appetite or lack of appetite are you hearing in Congress about granting these emergency funds?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, there's grumbling about not handing the president a blank check, but everyone's on board that something needs to be done. Republican leaders want these children to be processed more quickly, sent home safely. They want the border to be better secured. Clearly, all of that is going to take money. The question is how much money should be spent on what. How much do we spend on caring for these children while they're here versus how much do we spend on expediting their deportations? And here's the main conflict for Republicans. They want to help solve this crisis and certainly don't want to get blamed for denying funding to do so, but they don't want to see the president fix a crisis they say he caused and let him get off the hook. Here's House Speaker John Boehner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JOHN BOEHNER: So this is a problem of the president's own making. He's been president for five and a half years. When's he going to take responsibility for something?

BLOCK: So, that was an apparently irate Speaker Boehner there. What are some of the concrete examples that Republicans are using to show that the White House is encouraging the influx of children?

CHANG: Well, the drum beat that's been sounding for months is that the White House's lax immigration policies are lulling families in Central America into believing their children will be able to stay. And Republicans are zeroing in on the number of children the administration is regularly deporting. Mike Johanns of Nebraska said, when smuggling groups are promising parents a safe haven for their children they are actually speaking truthfully.

SENATOR MIKE JOHANNS: You tell me, Mr. Secretary, that 1,800 get deported. Those are pretty darn good odds. Chances are you're not going to get deported.

CHANG: Johanns is referring to figures officials gave today at the hearing. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says they're only deporting 1,800 children a year right now. And remember, about 57,000 of these kids have entered just since last October. Johnson says if this request for funding is granted, the government will be able to process an additional 55,000 to 75,000 cases a year. And if it's not granted, he says border patrol will basically run out of money by the end of the summer.

BLOCK: Also there's been talk about amending a 2008 law. The idea would be to help the administration process these kids more quickly. How much bipartisan interest is there in doing that?

CHANG: There is quite a bit. This is the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. It passed unanimously and it was originally aimed at fighting human trafficking, but what it does is require children from countries that don't border the U.S. to be placed with sponsors while waiting for their immigration hearings. Lawmakers from both parties are trying to change that law. They want to treat children from all countries the same and therefore give the government the ability to return these kids to their home countries more quickly, and the White House seems to be on board with that.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Ailsa Chang on Capitol Hill. Ailsa, thanks.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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