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White House faces resistance as it navigates response to border crisis

The fence marking the border between Mexico and the United States is photographed on Wednesday, July 16, 2014, in La Paloma,Texas.

David Pike/Associated Press

The White House is meeting growing resistance from both the left and the right as it pushes a multibillion-dollar emergency spending bill to tackle the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing into South Texas.

The crisis of unaccompanied youths at the border has burst into U.S. headlines in recent weeks, with the bulk of more than 57,000 young people streaming up from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador since last autumn, often fleeing brutal gang violence.

In Washington, Democratic opposition is hardening to changing a 2008 anti-trafficking law to allow Central American children to be sent home more quickly.

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Meanwhile, Republicans demand such changes as their price for supporting any part of President Barack Obama's $3.7 billion spending request.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday he cannot accept changing U.S. policy to speed the children home faster without court hearings.

A dispute also emerged at a hearing led by Sen. Robert Menendez over whether the border crisis was caused by Obama's two-year-old policy allowing certain immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children to stay and work here.

"Are you telling me that his executive order that we're not going to send any children back didn't cause an explosion," asked Sen. James Risch, a Republican, holding up a chart showing immigration spiking in 2012.

"I think very little of it has to do with the immigration debate here," said Thomas A. Shannon, a counsellor at the State Department.

Shannon said gang violence was a major driver but that smugglers also exploited U.S. policies that in practice allow Central American children to stay once they arrive.

An Obama administration Senate briefing late Wednesday appeared to change few minds.

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"You wanted someone to stand up and say, 'Hey let's talk about reality here, there's nowhere to get this money out of the House of Representatives unless you adjust the law,"' Republican Sen. Mark Kirk said.

In the briefing, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reiterated support for changing the 2008 law to treat Central American children the same as Mexican youths, who can be turned around at the border without the immigration hearing guaranteed to those from Central America.

Yet Johnson's statement didn't go far enough for Republicans, even as Democrats expressed alarm at such a change. "I'm really opposed to changing that 2008 law," Tom Harkin, a Democrat senator, said as he left the meeting.

Any bill approved by the Republican-led House might have trouble in the Democratic-controlled Senate, even as time draws short for any action in the few weeks remaining before Congress' annual summer recess.

Meanwhile the politics around the issue appeared set to get even tougher as a spokeswoman for Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz announced he would use any legislation to try to repeal a 2-year-old Obama directive that allowed certain immigrants brought here illegally as youths to stay and work in the U.S.

Republicans contend that policy is partly responsible for the current crisis by creating the perception that youths can stay in this country, even though no one arriving now would be eligible. The administration largely disputes that notion.

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Still, lawmakers of both parties expressed the desire to act amid signs that the public was demanding a solution. One in six people now calls immigration the most pressing problem facing the U.S., according to a new Gallup poll — up dramatically just since last month, when only 5 per cent said immigration topped their list of concerns.

The dynamics around the issue appear to be shifting quickly. Last week a deal briefly appeared possible that would have passed legal changes to return the youths home more quickly and Obama's spending request. But since then, leading Democrats who initially had sounded open to the proposal have changed course amid a fierce lobbying campaign by immigrant advocates, who say the speedy Border Patrol process used for youths from Mexico — which Republicans and the Obama administration would extend to Central Americans — would send children back to vicious gang violence and worse.

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