At issue is a 2008 law aimed at helping victims of human trafficking, which appears to be contributing to the current crisis by ensuring court hearings for the children now arriving from Central America. In practice, that often allows them to stay in this country for years as their cases wend their way through the badly backlogged immigration court system, and oftentimes they never show up for their court dates.
Obama administration officials along with Republican lawmakers want to change the law so that Central American children can be treated the same way as Mexican minors, who can be turned around quickly by Border Patrol agents.
"If you want to stop the problem, treat the children humanely and send them back. I guarantee you it will work," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday in a speech in Louisville.
Democrats and advocacy groups say such a change would put the kids in jeopardy.
"We will oppose this link even if it means the funding bill goes down," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. If the changes go through, "They'll be sent back to their persecutors with no help whatsoever, and possibly to their deaths."
The border controversy spilled over to a gathering of the National Governors Association in Nashville, Tennessee, where governors of both parties blamed a gridlocked Congress.
"Congress needs to act," declared Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, the group's Republican chairman. "They are children, so we want to treat them very humanely, but we also have a lot of concerns for the health and wellness of our citizens in our state."
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Nashville, Tennessee, Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, and Juan Carlos Llorca in Artesia, New Mexico, contributed to this report.