WASHINGTON — President Obama can take action to relieve much of the crisis caused by tens of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the southern US border without waiting for what is likely to be a contentious and lengthy congressional battle, say two key lawmakers, one a Democrat and the other a Republican.
At issue is a provision in a 2008 human trafficking law that puts the fate of young immigrants from countries that don’t border the United States in the hands of immigration judges.
The Obama administration has expressed interest in asking Congress to change the law to give the administration more leeway in dealing with the crisis. It can take years for cases to make their way through immigration courts.
But Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that wholesale changes by Congress may not be necessary and that Obama has the authority to return the children to their native countries.
Since October, more than 57,000 children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, have crossed the Mexican border without their parents.
Obama ‘‘has tools in his toolbox’’ to solve quickly what most officials say has become a humanitarian crisis and to deter more children from coming to the United States, Rogers said.
‘‘We can safely get them home,’’ Rogers said on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press.’’ He said, ‘‘And that’s where the president needs to start. So he needs to reengage, get folks who are doing administrative work on the border. They need to make sure they send a very clear signal.’’
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and the author of the provision in the human trafficking law, said a change in regulations, not the law, could speed the children’s return.
The law already allows the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to write regulations to deal with ‘‘exceptional circumstances’’ that would allow officials to return the children more quickly to their home countries, Feinstein said.
‘‘I would urge HHS and DHS to sit down and set the exceptional circumstances — it may be the number of children coming through in a week or a month, however you see it — and how the process might be modified to give you more time,’’ she said Thursday during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.
The committee is considering a $3.7 billion emergency budget request from the White House to deal with the growing crisis on the border.
Feinstein did not elaborate on what changes to the current system she believed the law already allows the president to make.
Under the current law, the Homeland Security Department has 72 hours to transfer child immigrants traveling alone to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Amid the crush of children traveling alone, more than 39,000 other people traveling with their families, mostly mothers and young children, have also been caught in South Texas. An undisclosed number have been released into the community with notices to report back to immigration officials or in court at a later date.
A case for urgency
Obama said the $3.7 billion in emergency spending would help the government deal with the flood of unaccompanied child immigrants. Some of the money would help fund about 40 additional immigration judge teams.
Federal immigration courts have a backlog of more than 375,000 cases. It can often take several years for an immigrant to receive a final ruling.
Republicans have balked at the size of Obama’s spending request, arguing that he needs to do more to secure the border and do more to stop immigrant children from making the trip from Central America in the first place.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell met privately with dozens of governors in Nashville on Sunday as the Obama administration tried to get support from the leaders of states that will host thousands of the Central American children.
The discussions were held on the sidelines of a meeting of the National Governors Association. Governors of both parties expressed concerns about the cost to states, including providing public education for the children, according to those who attended the meeting.
In Southern California on Sunday, immigrants were flocking to churches to see a wooden statue of a saint cherished by border-crossers who make the perilous journey to the United States.
The 4-foot-tall statue of Santo Toribio Romo Gonzalez was flown from the Mexican state of Jalisco and was making stops in churches in three California counties.