Legislation brought forward by Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, would allow U.S. Border Patrol agents to turn many of the kids around quickly at the border. Under current law, the youths stay here while awaiting an eventual hearing in the backlogged immigration court system, something that can keep them in this country for years.
Of more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who've arrived at the border since October, only 1,254 had been returned home as of the end of June, according to a law enforcement official who spoke anonymously to discuss confidential data.
"The border region in Texas has been overwhelmed over the past few months by a deluge of undocumented immigrants from Central America," Cuellar said in a statement. "Today's legislation strengthens current law protecting unaccompanied children and responds to the crisis."
The bill comes as the White House is trying to get Congress to sign off on a $3.7 billion emergency spending request to deal with the situation at the border by adding more immigration judges and detention facilities, among other steps.
Republicans have made clear they won't agree to such spending without policy changes along the lines of what Cornyn and Cuellar are seeking, and the White House has indicated support for some such changes. But immigrant advocacy groups and key Senate Democrats are opposed, making it unclear if a deal can be struck in the three weeks that remain before Congress leaves Washington for its annual August recess.
The Cornyn-Cuellar bill would amend a 2008 law passed to address victims of sex trafficking. That legislation guaranteed protections to unaccompanied youths arriving here from "noncontiguous" countries - anywhere except Mexico or Canada. The existing law requires such youths to be turned over to the custody of the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours, and from there they are generally placed with family members or others while awaiting a long-distant court hearing they may never attend.
The Cornyn-Cuellar bill would allow Central American kids to be treated the same as those from Mexico, whose people can be sent back over the border quickly unless they are able to persuade Border Patrol agents that they have a fear of return, meriting further screening.
White House and Obama administration officials have said they support this change, but in face of objections from allies in the immigrant advocacy community they have yet to propose it officially. Spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House welcomes "constructive engagement from Republicans" but will wait to see the actual legislation.