12 work days to compromise on border crisis

Talk about a tall order. A Congress that can agree on little has 12 scheduled work days to forge a compromise on one of the most volatile issues -- immigration -- before going home for all of August.

Failure to find agreement means no immediate help for a U.S. immigration system overwhelmed by tens of thousands of children from Central America illegally entering the country in recent months.

Republicans and Democrats are refining their opening positions this week as officials scramble to keep up with the unprecedented influx amid the hyperpartisan political climate of a congressional election year.

Both sides appear supportive of spending more money. The sticking points involve how much to spend on what, as well as the broader policy issue of who gets deported and how fast.

What's happened so far

An unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador continues traveling through Mexico to cross the border into Texas.

Almost 60,000 arrived since October 1, with up to 30,000 more expected by the end of the current fiscal year on September 30 -- well over twice the figure of the previous year.

Related: Battle lines are drawn in immigration debate

They face an immigration limbo of overcrowded holding centers, followed by transfer or release to await deportation hearings that can take months or years to happen and many don't attend.

President Barack Obama last week requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding from Congress to respond to what his administration calls an urgent humanitarian situation.

The request includes $1.8 billion to provide temporary care for children while they are in government custody, and $1.6 billion to bolster customs and border efforts while cracking down on smugglers.

Another $300 million would help Mexico and the Central American governments discourage desperate parents from paying smugglers to get their children into the United States.

The response

As expected, the Obama request set off a partisan debate on the current crisis as well as the broader immigration issue that reflects the deep partisan divide permeating the country.

Republicans contend Obama created the problem by halting deportations of some child immigrants in recent years, a move they say invited more to come.

They want any additional resources now to bolster border security and swiftly send back the new arrivals.

Democrats say more border security won't really help because the new arrivals want to get into the immigration system, rather than evade it.

Instead, they argue that additional resources should speed up the processing, with faster hearings to determine if child immigrants have the right to stay, better monitoring of them while here and quicker deportations if a judge issues a removal order.

Meanwhile, the divisive issue plays out on streets in some affected areas, with protesters in one California town blocking buses transporting new arrivals to temporary facilities.

The House

Speaker John Boehner appointed a Republican working group to come up with recommendations for how the GOP-led chamber should proceed on the matter.

Boehner already is under pressure from Obama and Democrats to bring up a broad Senate-passed immigration reform measure that would boost border security while providing a path to legal status for millions of longtime undocumented immigrants in the country.

Conservatives oppose the Senate plan as an amnesty, knowing it would add millions of likely Democratic voters to election rolls.

However, moderate Republicans fear continued GOP resistance to immigration reform supported by by a broad coalition of business, faith and social leaders undermines the party's chances to increase its popularity with Hispanic Americans -- the nation's largest minority and an increasingly crucial election demographic.

Boehner and other Republican leaders may consider the current border crisis an opportunity to show their willingness to agree on a narrow immigration measure while avoiding the sweep of comprehensive reforms pushed by Obama and Democrats in the Senate proposal.

The working group reports back to Boehner on Tuesday, with its findings expected to outline the GOP negotiating stance.

The 2008 trafficking law

Republicans and some Democrats appear focused on changing a 2008 law designed to crack down on child trafficking.

The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Action Act requires deportation hearings for child immigrants. The provision designed to protect unaccompanied minors now contributes to a backlog in processing the surge from Central America.

Several proposals being drafted would ease the red tape involved in sending home the child immigrants, but the complex matter evokes differing perspectives.

Republicans say the current law should be changed

so that Central American immigrants can be turned away at the border, like those from neighboring countries Mexico and Canada under the 2008 law.

The distinction involves the immigrant's country of origin. Mexicans or Canadians turned back at the border are in their home country, unlike those from Central American nations and elsewhere.

GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who backs the comprehensive immigration reform measure being blocked by House Republicans, called for the newly arriving children to be sent home quickly.

"All we need to do is change the act, the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act, to treat these children the same way as we do with Canada and especially Mexico," McCain told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

Democrats don't want to change the law intended to combat trafficking, saying it also provides protections to children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador fleeing gang violence and other problems back home that caused their parents to pay smugglers to get them to the United States.

"Follow the law, and the law said that we must put the children's interests first," Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told the CBS program "Face the Nation."

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that talks with legislators continued on possible revisions to the 2008 law, or leaving it intact while coming up with a separate proposal to give Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson more flexibility.

Earnest made clear that the administration wants arriving immigrants to get a full determination of their legal right to stay in the country.

"We certainly would ensure that they receive the due process to which they are entitled," Earnest said. "But once that due process has run its course, if it's found that those individuals do not have a legal basis for remaining in the country, we would like the secretary of homeland security to be able to exercise the discretion necessary to repatriate that individual or those individuals."

Political fallout

With all 435 House seats and about a third of the Senate up for election in November, both parties seek maximum political advantage from the issue.

Republicans criticize Obama's policies for causing the border crisis and complain his administration has been slow to react. Some Democrats joined Republicans in saying the President should have gone to the Texas border to witness the situation for himself when he visited the Lone Star State last week.

Obama and Democrats argue the broad reforms they support, which House Republicans have blocked after the Senate passed them, demonstrate their commitment to the plight of immigrants.

Earnest noted that Obama proposed his $3.7 billion emergency funding request last week, with no substantive response as yet.

"We've seen a lot of talk from Republicans about how urgent and pressing the situation is, but not a lot of action when it comes to acting on ... a detailed proposal that the President put forward eight days ago," he said.

Gergen-Katz idea

In a column on Sunday, CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen and his research assistant, Daniel Katz, laid out a three-step solution to the problem.

They called for responding "generously" to the still arriving child immigrants, including an effort to find new homes for those that qualify for refugee status.

For those eventually returned to their home countries, the United States should push for U.N.-operated "safe zones" where they could live with their families to reduce their exposure to violence and other hardships, according to Gergen and Katz.

Development of such safe zones would allow the United States to "set a firm date when all children who arrive thereafter will be returned to their native countries regardless," they wrote.

"We as Americans are capable of coming up with creative solutions that are compassionate as well as sensible," the pair noted, calling for "solutions that tell the world (and ourselves) that we still aspire to be good-hearted, noble but pragmatic people."

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