Republicans are digging in against the flood of thousands of migrant children caught along the U.S. border, raising alarms, and in some cases, making ludicrous claims in their efforts to swiftly deport the kids.
GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey, a retired Georgia physician, is stoking fears that the flood of migrant children is bringing loads of diseases into U.S., even cases of the severe and oftentimes fatal Ebola virus.
Gingrey on Tuesday defended a letter he wrote to the Centers for Disease Control raising "serious concerns" that the children would bring diseases that would "spread to rapidly to control."
"The border patrol gave us a list of the diseases that they're concerned about, and Ebola was one of those," Gingrey told NBC News' Luke Russert, "I can't tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don't think there were, but of course Tuberculosis, Chagas disease, many -- small pox, some of the infectious diseases of children, all of these are concerns."
Medical experts swiftly panned Gingrey's claims for raising hysteria, noting that Ebola is not only difficult to transmit, but also does not exist in Central America. According to the World Health Organization, Ebola has only been found in humans living in sub-Saharan Africa.
Gingrey's claims, however, join a chorus of alarms from the right conjuring a major public health crisis at the border with alleged outbreaks of scabies, lice and chicken pox in the facilities holding the migrant kids.
It has been one week since President Obama asked for nearly $4 billion in emergency funding from Congress, but lawmakers have yet to pass any legislation to cope with the more than 57,000 migrant children who have crossed into the U.S. since last October.
Still, one proposal floated by the White House earlier this month to speed up the deportation process for migrant children is starting to catch on Capitol Hill. A bipartisan pair of Texas lawmakers, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and Republican Sen. John Cornyn, were expected to formally introduce a bill Tuesday that would alter a 2008 law in order to fast-track asylum screenings at the border. A group of House Republicans is expected to propose similar measures after returning this week from a trip to Guatemala and Honduras.
The proposal would make changes to a human trafficking law enacted in 2008 that protects children who flee from countries that do not share a border with the U.S. Lawmakers want to water down some of those protections to treat children coming from Central America the same way they treat kids from Mexico. That process would speed up deportation proceedings for children who do not qualify for asylum claims.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill proposed by Cuellar and Cornyn would be dead on arrival. "I think that it's too broad. It addresses more than just the border problem," Reid told reporters.
The uproar over the surge of migrant kids along the border is beginning to reflect poorly on both House Republicans and the president. According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, more than half of Americans polled said they support the White House plan for emergency funding. But congressional GOP ranked poorly with Americans -- including half of Republicans themselves -- with just 23% approving with how the party is addressing the issue. President Obama’s ratings were slightly higher, with a third of Americans who approved his handling of the unaccompanied children.
Republicans have complained that the funding the president requested is too costly and does not go far enough to secure the border and swiftly deport the children. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that Republicans would only consider a “very limited” emergency funding that would run through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
“Look, we’re not going to write a blank check,” the Texas Republican said.
Though Cuellar has been outspoken in calls to swiftly process children who do not qualify for asylum, Democrats have been largely split on the issue. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland on Tuesday warned that any changes to the 2008 trafficking law would be "inappropriate."
"I think most Democrats would tell you is what we don't want to see is to reduce due process rights," California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra added. "We don't want to find ourselves returning children to persecution, human smuggling, human sex trafficking, perhaps death."
President Obama made clear earlier this month that he would sidestep Congress on immigration issues after House Republicans failed to take up the comprehensive reform passed by the Senate last year. The issues along the border now compound the problem, further straining already backlogged immigration courts. The White House is searching for ways to speed up the deportation process for children who do not qualify for asylum in the U.S., despite strong calls from human rights and immigration groups that say deporting the children would mean returning them to dangerous and oftentimes violent situations.
“These children will — and other immigrants who are attempting to enter the country without documentation — will go through the immigration process and that means their claims of asylum will be considered by an immigration judge and by asylum officials,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
On Monday, roughly 40 adults and children were deported back to Central America after being detained in New Mexico for crossing into the U.S. illegally. Department of Homeland Security officials said the flight to Honduras marked just the beginning of a wave of deportations expecting in the "coming days and weeks."
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas was held for several hours by Border Patrol officials Tuesday before being released.
"As an unaccompanied child migrant myself, I came to McAllen, Texas, to shed a light on children who parts of America and many in the news media are actively turning their backs on. But what I saw was the generosity of the American people, documented and undocumented, in the Rio Grande Valley," Vargas said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis is begging the U.S. to show compassion toward the migrant kids and made a point on Monday to stress the dangerous journeys the children face and the driving forces that are leading them to flee. “This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected,” the pope said from Mexico City.
Additional reporting by Michele Richinick