On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico, tried to bring the human face of the ongoing border crisis alive to President Barack Obama in a meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building near the White House, according to two Congressmen present.
“To not hear these stories is to make these kids disappear,” Luján says he told the President and the beginning of the meeting. He then cited the Pope’s call for action on the immigration crisis earlier this week, and recounted three news reports of kidnapped, beaten and killed children and journalists.
Luján also told a story of his own, one he says was shared with him by two nuns who worked with unaccompanied migrant children at Catholic Charities in Honduras. The nuns told Luján a child was being recruited by one of the local gangs there when the parents intervened, the Congressman recounted. “[The gang] not only killed the child, they killed the parents,” Luján said. “They left them on display for everyone to see.”
The President, who has not visited the border, reacted sympathetically to Luján’s stories, according to Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), who was at the meeting as a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had requested time with the president.
“The horror of what is going on—you could just feel it in the room,” said Sanchez. “[The President] said, ‘Look as a father I understand that completely. Those children’s lives are no less valuable than my own.’”
The President, however, did not back down from his insistence that Congress make changes to a 2008 law that would allow for a speedier deportation of children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The Administration estimates that the Administration will apprehend as many as 90,000 unaccompanied minors at the border by the end of September. The White House did not respond for comment for this story.
The Hispanic Caucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi support an approach where the President would use his current authority—and $3.7 billion—to address the crisis. The Democrats argue that the most humane response would be to quicken the current backlog of immigration cases through hiring more judges and adjusting current policy that would prioritize the children’s cases.
“We don’t want to see a child return to the hands of sex traffickers because we were in a hurry to deal with the humanitarian crisis at the border,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) tells TIME. “I think [Obama] understands that. And as a caucus we have come to the position that we won’t vote for an appropriation bill…that undermines what children have.”
Republicans have argued that the 2008 law—the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Action Act—needs to be changed to allow Border Patrol agents greater authority to screen and deport Central American children. Under the law, the Border Patrol is supposed to transfer these children within 72 hours to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services until their immigration cases are decided. House Speaker John Boehner and others have also argued for increased border security, including sending in the National Guard.
Boehner indicated Thursday that the prospects of Republicans and Democrats forging an agreement by the end of July has taken a turn for the worse as Democrats have established their position on the 2008 law.
“I can’t imagine our members are going to want to send more money down there without attempting to mitigate the problem at the border,” said Boehner. “I don’t have as much optimism as I’d like to have.”
Additional reporting by Zeke Miller/Washington