The surge of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border has refocused attention on immigration. But that's apparently not going to translate into action on comprehensive immigration reform in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart is one of the original “gang of eight,” the bipartisan group of House members who tried - and failed - to draft an immigration reform bill. House Democrats and a pair of California Republicans - David Valadao of Hanford and Jeff Denham of Turlock - proposed their own bill that went nowhere.
Diaz-Balart told “The Washington Post” that he asked the GOP leadership to put the issue to a House vote. The Speaker’s office says it does not comment on private conversations, but San Jose Democrat Zoe Lofgren says she heard the same thing on the House floor from Diaz-Balart himself. She says he's "bitterly disappointed at his own leadership."
Diaz-Balart was praised by immigration reformers. Lorella Praeli from United We Dream says he showed "bold leadership by standing up to his own party and leadership on immigration." Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, calls him "one of our most dependable and passionate champions on the Republican side of the aisle on the issue of immigration reform." Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez, who's taken his campaign for immigration reform to Congressional districts across the country, says he's getting together with his GOP colleague tonight. Gutierrez says he'd always hoped Diaz-Balart would be able to achieve what he failed to do: get his own caucus "when we were in the majority to give us a vote on immigration reform."
A narrower immigration bill could come to the floor as part of President Barack Obama's emergency request for $3.7-billion to deal with the influx of immigrant children: a measure to do away with hearings for all children crossing the border, making possible quick deportations. A 2008 law designed to fight sex trafficking requires that unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico or Canada receive a full immigration hearing. A backlog in cases means wait times for those hearings is as long as three years. Undocumented children are housed with either foster parents or the child's relatives living in the U.S. until the hearing.
Republican Senator John Cornyn and House Democrat Henry Cuellar - both from Texas - are reportedly working on a measure that would treat all unaccompanied minors the same way by eliminating the immigration hearings.
Activists and Democrats like Lofgren, the ranking member on the House immigration subcommittee, oppose the measure. They say it will send trafficking victims back to their traffickers. Lofgren says what's needed to eliminate the backlog is more immigration judges. Currently, there are just over 200 judges nationwide, she says. LA County alone has 400 judges working in its superior court.
House Speaker John Boehner says he won't give the president a blank check. Congressional approval for more border security and more immigration judges is likely to be tied to faster deportation. Boehner says our priorities are to return the children safely to their home countries and "their own families."
Ali Noorani says there's a slim chance the Republican-led House could tackle immigration reform after the November election - if the GOP sees their "electoral future" at risk. He says there's still time. "The thing about the House is that when they decide they want to do something, they can do it quickly."