BROWNSVILLE, Texas – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Saturday during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border that she holds little hope that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.
After visiting a Border Patrol facility in Brownsville holding unaccompanied children, the California Democrat said politics should be set aside to address what President Barack Obama has called an "urgent humanitarian situation." More than 52,000 unaccompanied children, most from Central America, have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally since October.
"A few days ago I would have been more optimistic about comprehensive immigration reform," Pelosi said. "I thought that we had been finding a way because we have been very patient and respectful of [Speaker of the House John Boehner] trying to do it one way or another. I don't think he gives us much reason to be hopeful now, but we never give up. There's still the month of July."
She did not elaborate on what had dampened her optimism in this midterm election year. Boehner's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Border Patrol in South Texas has been overwhelmed for several months by an influx of unaccompanied children and parents traveling with young children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Unlike Mexican immigrants arrested after entering the U.S. illegally, those from Central America cannot be as easily returned to their countries.
The U.S. had only one family detention center in Pennsylvania, so most adults traveling with young children were released and told to check in with the local immigration office when they arrived at their destination. A new facility for families is being prepared in New Mexico.
Children who traveled alone, like those visited by Pelosi in Brownsville, are handled differently. By law, they must be transferred to the custody of the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest. From there, they are sent into a network of shelters until they can be reunited with family members while awaiting their day in immigration court.
On Saturday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said up to 2,000 unaccompanied immigrant children could be transferred from overcrowded facilities in McAllen to his county by the end of next month. He said the plan is to have youngsters spend about three weeks in Dallas County before hopefully being placed with relatives who are elsewhere in the U.S. The federal government will cover the costs, Jenkins said.
"This is not a commentary on the immigration debate," Jenkins said on the sidelines of the Texas Democratic Convention in Dallas. "This is about scared and lonely children who are trapped in not good conditions on the border, and what we can do in this county to be a part of the solution."
Jenkins said that one temporary housing facility was already being prepared and that officials were searching for two others that would be ready by late July. Gov. Rick Perry had been briefed on the plan, said Jenkins, who added he hopes the state will search for more housing options in other parts of Texas.
Pelosi said immigrants' cases should be handled on a case-by-case basis. "We don't want our good nature abused by those who would misrepresent what's happening in the United States on the subject of immigration to affect how we deal with a refugee problem."
Republicans have criticized Obama's immigration policies, arguing that they've left the impression that women and children from Central America will be allowed to stay in the United States. The administration has worked to send a clear message in recent weeks that new arrivals will be targeted for deportation. But immigrants arriving from those countries say they are fleeing pervasive gang violence and crushing poverty.
The situation is drawing attention and politicians from both parties to South Texas. While Pelosi was speaking in Brownsville, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, appeared with the first lady of Honduras, Ana Garcia de Hernandez, in McAllen.
Next week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman and Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte is scheduled to lead members of that panel to the Rio Grande Valley and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, is scheduled to hold a field hearing Thursday in McAllen.
Pelosi said she came to Brownsville at the invitation of local U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela to find out what Congress can do to help.
"The fact is these are children, children and families," Pelosi said. "We have a moral responsibility to address this in a dignified way."