Bill would speed removals of Central American youths

 Illegal immigrants were held at a Texas facility in this photo taken within the last two weeks. A flight to Honduras Monday carried 40 people who had been held in New Mexico.
Illegal immigrants were held at a Texas facility in this photo taken within the last two weeks. A flight to Honduras Monday carried 40 people who had been held in New Mexico.

WASHINGTON — Two Texas lawmakers announced legislation Monday to speed removal of tens of thousands of Central American children from the US-Mexico border, as Washington grasped for a solution to the mounting crisis.

The bill by Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, and Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, would allow US Border Patrol agents to turn many of the children around quickly at the border. Under current law, the youths stay while awaiting an eventual hearing in the backlogged immigration court system, something that can keep them in the United States for years.

Of more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have arrived at the border since October, only 1,254 had been returned home as of the end of June, said 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.’’

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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 will not 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 whether a deal can be struck in the three weeks that remain before Congress leaves Washington for its annual August recess.

Administration officials were to travel to Capitol Hill Wednesday to brief senators on the situation, and House members were to hear from lawmakers who traveled to Central America over the weekend as part of a working group convened by Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.


Meanwhile, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that the first flight returning Central American families back home landed in Honduras Monday with 40 people on board who had been held in a new detention facility in Artesia, N.M.

The Cornyn-Cuellar bill would amend a 2008 law passed to address victims of sex trafficking. That legislation guaranteed protections to unaccompanied youths arriving in the United States 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 court hearing.

The Cornyn-Cuellar bill would allow Central American youths to be treated the same as Mexican youths, who 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.

The ‘legislation strengthens current law protecting unaccompanied children.’

The bill also aims to speed the court process for those who do enter it.