What Will Become Of Obama's Request For Immigration Relief Funds?

NPR's Arun Rath talks to political correspondent Mara Liasson about the chances of a political agreement over how to handle the migration of thousands of Central American children.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Bitter words are still flying over what to do with the tens of thousands of Central American children who are streaming over the Mexican border. It looks like an urgent humanitarian crisis - children fleeing from countries plagued by gang violence. But it's politically fraught for president Obama and potentially for his fierce Republican critics as well.

NPR's senior political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to assess the chances for finding a solution to the crisis. And, Mara, the president has requested $3.7 billion to care for the children and to hire more immigration judges. What do you think the chances are for approval of this emergency aid?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I think in the end, something will get approved - not $3.7 billions. Republican say that's too high. Some Republicans are also balking at calling it emergency funding. That means it won't be offset by cuts elsewhere. Other Republicans say they don't want to write the president a blank check because he's the one who caused this problem by not securing the border. We should actually point out that these kids are not actually sneaking across the border. They are turning themselves in in the hopes of getting a hearing on asylum or at least getting to stay in the U.S. for a few years while they wait for a hearing. And that process stems from a 2008 law which is also a big subject of debate in this crisis.

RATH: Could you explain what this law does and what the discussion is?

LIASSON: The 2008 law which was passed unanimously and signed into law by George W. Bush made a distinction between how Mexican kids and Canadian kids - contiguous country kids - were handled and how Central American kids were handled. The idea was that kids who come from noncontiguous countries, especially from Central America, where they are fleeing gang violence, they are subject to sex trafficking - those kids should have a more complex legal process to make sure that they're not being sent back into dangerous situations.

The White House wants flexibility. It wants to be able to treat the Central American kids the same way as Mexican kids - speed up the process of their hearings so they can get them sent back quicker. Some Republicans say they want the actual law changed before they'll give the president any money. And there are a lot of fault lines here.

There are Republicans who say they want to fix the law but still provide for asylum where necessary. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain have proposed a bill that would speed up the process for getting these Central American kids back home but, at the same time, increase the numbers of kids who could claim asylum.

There are fault lines in the Democratic Party. Immigration advocate groups and Hispanic Caucus members and some progressive Democrats don't want the law changed. On the other hand, you have Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader in the House, say she's fine with having it changed because she needs - we need to solve this humanitarian crisis. And you've got the administration sending Jay Johnson, the Homeland Security Director, down to the border to these detention facilities to tell these kids you will be sent home.

RATH: Now, Mara, if there is bipartisan cooperation on this crisis, could that brighten the prospects for immigration reform?

LIASSON: I don't think so. I think the prospects for immigration reform are nil this year. John Boehner has already told the president he is not going to bring any bills up in the house this year. The president has said that he gave the House Republicans a year. He's now given up waiting for them. By the end of the summer he's going to be deciding on unilateral actions that he can take by executive authority to ease deportations. This crisis has really caused problems for the president as he tries to make these decisions on unilateral action because it riles up the anti-amnesty base of the Republican Party right before the November elections.

RATH: Demanding the deportation of children makes for kind of ugly headlines. Could that be politically dangerous for the Republicans?

LIASSON: Not in the short term. I think it's good for them in the 2014 elections because it makes the president look like he can't handle the border. But there aren't very many battleground states with large numbers of Hispanic voters. But in 2016, when Republicans will have to run in a national election, this could hurt their attempts to reach out to Hispanic voters. And they really need to do better among Hispanic voters if they're going to win the White House again.

RATH: NPR's senior political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Arun.

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