AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is forcing lawmakers to take on immigration policy just as they were putting it on the back burner. More than 57,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, have been caught at the border since October. A 2008 anti-trafficking law gave new protections to minors from countries other than Mexico or Canada. It allows them to stay in the U.S. while they're waiting for a hearing to determine whether they qualify for asylum. Now president Obama has asked Congress for 3.7 billion dollars to help deal with the influx. But House Republicans say first, that 2008 law should be amended to speed up deportations. Democrats are divided. We caught the congressman, Pete Gallego, between votes today on Capitol Hill. His district covers 800 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border. I asked him whether he supports the president's multi-billion dollar request.
CONGRESSMAN PETE GALLEGO: Well, there's portions of it that I certainly would be in favor of, the additional revenue for example, for more judges and for more people. We've got to have facilities there, we have never had facilities for juveniles. And so I will tell you, that having visited del Rio this past weekend, you've got kids who are living in jail, essentially. The facilities are just not built for that.
CORNISH: And you've said that there's portions of this you support. What are the portions you have reservations about?
GALLEGO: You know, what I am very hesitant to do in a real way is militarize the border. Because I think that that causes some challenges for the economy, I think that causes some challenges for those of us who essentially rely on U.S.-Mexico trade, when you slow down the legitimate trade that is going on there that has a huge impact on the local economy. So...
CORNISH: And you're referring to the increase in border agents. That proposal?
GALLEGO: Some of the challenge is if you would just enforce the law that you have now and you would do that efficiently, you wouldn't have some of these challenges. For me, as I walk along the border and talk to people, that's what I hear, even from border patrolmen themselves, is let's just enforce the current law. That will take us a long way towards dealing with this. Let's not provide incentive for people, let's make sure that people get the message that there is no automatic citizenship just because you show up here on the shores of the U.S., let's make sure however that we're also aware of our humanitarian obligations and responsibilities, so that those kids who are running away, you have the opportunity to interview them and if they deserve to be here, if they refugee status, let's make sure they get it.
CORNISH: Congressman Gallego, there's legislation making its way through Congress that would amend the 2008 anti-human trafficking law. This would speed up deportations of unaccompanied minors who come from Central America. And the White House has said it's open to this change but many of your fellow Democrats are against it. Where do you stand on this?
GALLEGO: I think there's a huge divide between the Republicans and the Democrats on this issue and even the White House. I will tell you one of the reservations that I have is the personal experience I have had as a prosecutor which is, when somebody is run to you because they're victims of crime, you don't want to put them back in the same situation. That for me, even as a member of the Texas legislator was what I worked on every day to make sure that we treated crime victims with respect. And so if people are in fact crime victims, if they are running from a situation and if they are entitled to refugee status under the current law, then I think we should enforce the current law. And unless and until I am convinced that we are not putting people back in harm's way, especially when these are children, then I'm going to have some reservations. But I'm looking forward to finishing my reading of that proposal, line by line and working with Democratic and Republican members of the House in order to reach a reasonable accommodation.
CORNISH: What does this crisis mean for the effort to pass broader immigration legislation?
GALLEGO: Well, I think, I have never been one of those, who has believed that comprehensive immigration reform had a shot during this particular session of Congress, even during the lame duck period. I'm not convinced now that it even has a shot during the Obama administration because there is such rancor and bitterness between the White House and the Congress. I am hopeful that reasonable minds prevail and that we put the needs of the country before the partisanship and the rhetoric. But I have yet to see proof that that will happen.
CORNISH: Congressman Pete Gallego, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GALLEGO: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Democratic Congressman Pete Gallego of Texas. He represents a district that stretches for hundreds of miles along the U.S.-Mexico border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.