WASHINGTON — Prospects for action on the nation's border crisis faded Thursday as lawmakers traded accusations rather than solutions, raising chances that Congress will head out for its summer recess without doing anything about the tens of thousands of migrant children streaming into South Texas.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas announced plans to try to cancel out President Barack Obama's two-year-old policy that granted work permits to hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought illegally to the country as youths, saying it was causing the crisis — something the administration disputed. "The problem will not be solved until we make clear that those coming here illegally will not be granted amnesty," Cruz declared.
That drew a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who complained on the Senate floor: "Instead of considering a thoughtful, compassionate solution to a real-life crisis, radical Republicans would rather hold these kids ransom."
Meanwhile Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, declared himself dead-set opposed to legal changes to speed return of the migrants to Central America more quickly — changes Republicans have demanded as the price for approving any part of Obama's $3.7 billion emergency spending request for the border. "I understand the desire to accelerate the process, but accelerating without due process is not acceptable," Menendez said.
Taken together, the developments suggested lawmakers were hardening their positions, leading House Speaker John Boehner — who regularly declares himself a glass-half-full optimist — to downgrade hopes for a solution.
"I don't have as much optimism as I'd like to have," said Boehner, R-Ohio. With just weeks until Congress' August recess, a working group the speaker convened to develop solutions to the problem failed once again to release its report Thursday, after initially promising to do so as early as Tuesday.
Even so, lawmakers in both parties expressed a desire to act amid signs that the public is demanding a resolution. One in six people now call immigration the most pressing problem facing the U.S., according to a new Gallup Poll — up dramatically just since last month, when only 5 percent said immigration topped their list of concerns.
"It's a terrible situation. You talk about small kids, nobody there to help them, but they've got to go back," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a supporter of stalled congressional efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration system. "I am out there on immigration reform, but there is no market for this in America. ... America is not going to tolerate this."
More than 57,000 children have arrived since fall, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The reasons for the unexpected surge have become as disputed on Capitol Hill as what the solution should be.
Obama administration officials point to brutal gang violence in some areas of Central America, as well as efforts by the children to reunite with family members. They also say smugglers are exploiting U.S. policies that, in practice, allow Central American kids to stay for years or indefinitely once they arrive.
At Menendez's hearing Thursday, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a counselor at the State Department, pointed to a 2008 trafficking victims law signed by George W. Bush that guarantees hearings to young people arriving here from Central America. It can allow them to stay here for years as their cases progress slowly through the overburdened immigration court system.
Republicans want to change that law so Central American kids are treated the same as Mexicans, who can be turned around at the border quickly unless they can convince Border Patrol agents they merit further screening. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told senators at a private briefing this week that he supports such a change, but Democratic congressional opposition has hardened amid fierce lobbying by immigration advocates who contend it would amount to violating the children's due process and sending them home to be abused or killed.
Meanwhile Republicans have increasingly focused on a different issue: Obama's 2012 directive removing the threat of deportation for certain immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as youths.
At Thursday's hearing, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, tried to get Obama administration witnesses to acknowledge the crisis was caused in part by Obama's policy, holding up a chart showing migration spiking in 2012.
"Are you telling me that his executive order that we're not going to send any children back didn't cause an explosion?" Risch asked.
"I think very little of it has to do with the immigration debate here," said Shannon, but he failed to convince Risch or other Republicans.
"In 2012, this thing just skyrockets," said Risch.
Cruz introduced a bill Thursday that would prevent the Obama policy, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, from being extended to any additional youths. His effort, which he called a precondition for action on Obama's spending request, drew support from a number of fellow Republicans, even as some expressed concern that it would only cause prospects for any broader solution to grow still more remote.
"We can't get gridlocked on this," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report