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By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In an unlikely partnership, two Texas lawmakers — one Democrat, one Republican — are proposing a bipartisan bill that would empower the United States to speed up immigration hearings in hopes of stemming the crisis of unaccompanied children at the border.

The proposal from Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents the south Texas border region, comes as Congress pans the White House request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to handle the migration crisis.

House Republicans are expected to consider alternatives to President Barack Obama’s proposal privately Tuesday. Many have said they will not support the administration’s request because it costs too much and does not provide policy changes to halt the flow of new arrivals.

About 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the Southwest border since October, and most are from Central America.

“Unless we do something like what Henry and I are proposing, those numbers will keep going up,” Cornyn said as he and Cuellar briefed reporters late Monday. “The money alone will not solve this problem.”

On Monday, the U.S. sent a planeload of Honduran mothers and children home in what officials called the “initial wave” of repatriations.
The Texas lawmakers’ proposal is likely to draw opposition from immigrant advocacy groups and some Democrats, because it would change a 2008 anti-trafficking law that guarantees children from all nations but Mexico and Canada a judicial hearing once they are apprehended.

But the proposal could lay the groundwork for an unusual alliance between the White House and the GOP. The measure could satisfy Republicans while giving the administration the new authority it says it needs to quickly deport the children and send a message to stop the flow of migrants.

“You’ve got to have changes in the policy,” said Cuellar, a five-term Democrat who has criticized Obama on the issue.

Cuellar just returned Monday from a weekend trip to Central America with House Republicans. The message from those leaders, he said, is that “they want their kids back.”

The proposal would change the special treatment children receive under the 2008 law, no longer guaranteeing them a judicial review once they arrive in the U.S. Instead, if Border Patrol officials determined that a minor might be eligible for asylum or other types of visas for children fleeing harm, the youths would be guaranteed a hearing before an immigration judge within seven days.

The proposal tries to strike a balance between gutting the 2008 law, as advocates for immigrants have feared, and expediting the judicial review that can now drag on for at least a year.

An additional 40 immigration judges would be added, as the White House requested, but the lawmakers would scale back other money the administration is seeking, including $1.8 billion to care for the minors while in custody.

A cost estimate for the Texans’ proposal was pending.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Don Bartletti

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