WASHINGTON — Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, and Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, introduced legislation Thursday to address what they described as a “humanitarian crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The measure, dubbed the HUMANE Act, is a reboot of a bill the duo pitched in 2014, when a surge of Central American migrants — families and children — likewise sought refuge in the U.S.
Cuellar and Cornyn want to, among other things, expedite the court process for those seeking asylum; allow unaccompanied children from Central American countries to voluntarily return to their home countries; and hire hundreds more U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.
Cornyn said the situation at the border is “going to get worse unless we act,” with ripple effects on trade and the broader economy.
“It has now gone from a humanitarian and security crisis to a full-blown system failure,” said the longtime senator, who is expected to face a tough re-election battle next year. “We really are on the brink of collapse at the border.”
A bill introduction typically isn’t a particularly important landmark, given that so few pieces of legislation — on immigration or otherwise — end up signed into law.
But the joint effort by Cornyn and Cuellar offers a rare bipartisan policy proposal in an acrimonious border debate that became only more politically charged after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to help build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico line.
It also stands out because the duo’s legislation sank five years ago amid criticism from both left and right.
Some Democrats and immigrant rights groups, including those from Texas, said then that the effort would harm children and others by denying them proper legal representation. Some immigration hawks, meanwhile, likened it to amnesty, saying it would just make it easier for migrants to get asylum.
Cornyn and Cuellar on Thursday acknowledged those dynamics, with the Republican saying that “there are going to be people who say I didn’t go far enough and Henry went too far.” But they rejected the criticism, both of the earlier legislation and the new version.
In particular, they said the new bill has improved in scope and substance.
Cornyn stressed that it “doesn’t change any asylum laws” and that it would send a “message of deterrence” to those traveling to the U.S. Cuellar emphasized that due process “would be protected” and that language was added to protect kids.
Still, why does the duo have confidence the measure could pass this time around?
“There is a growing sense of unease,” Cornyn said, referring to the situation at the border. “The status quo is not sustainable. This is getting worse every day. That is what has changed, this growing sense of urgency just because the numbers are skyrocketing.”
The Texas Democratic Party used the occasion to jab at Cornyn, pointing to their recent criticism of the senator as a “weak and self-serving … Washington insider” who “will stop at nothing to bow down to Donald Trump and disparage our border communities.”
Asked if those comments also applied to Cornyn’s legislative partner, Cuellar, state Democratic spokesman Abhi Rahman said no.
“There is contrast between the two on their comments and voting history on border issues,” he said.
But at the Capitol, the two Texans both focused on how the influx of migrants is pushing America’s immigration system to the limit.
Cornyn said that “many officers and agents are pulling double-duty, as law enforcement officers have to become caregivers for children,” while Cuellar outlined how the existing process is filled with inefficiencies that have become worse as resources have been shifted around.
They noted that the case backlog in the U.S. immigration court system numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
That’s why the duo wants to expedite the legal timeline for asylum seekers, while also establishing regional processing centers in high-traffic areas along the border. Cuellar summed up their goal by saying, “The only thing is that we want their day in court faster.”
“Let the immigration judge decide,” said Cuellar, a conservative Democrat. “If he or she decides they stay, ‘Bienvenidos.'”
How the legislation might fit with the Trump administration’s efforts was unclear. Trump this week asked Congress for $4.5 billion in emergency spending at the border, while also proposing that those seeking asylum should, among other things, pay an application fee.
Cornyn said his bill with Cuellar “is something that needs to be done on its own and done quickly.”
“I understand that in the absence of legislation, the administration is trying to figure out something that will have an impact,” he said. “The truth is this legislation will have a far greater impact than anything that’s been proposed by the administration.”
Stand with Senator John Cornyn!