Tens of thousands of people flocking to the U.S. border from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have stirred anger into the boiling immigration debate, but U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday that the crisis confronting federal, state and local governments is not an immigration issue.
"It's a humanitarian problem, but it's apart from immigration reform. This is a specific problem created by an impression that if you get to America, you can stay," Graham said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"We've got to turn that impression around, send these children back to their homelands, tell the countries in question if you don't keep them and take care of them, we're going to cut all aid," said Graham, a Republican from Seneca.
Nevertheless, the growing wave of humanity, including more than 52,000 unaccompanied children detained since October, has ignited protests against undocumented immigrants, including one in Murrieta, Calif., that blocked buses bound for a Border Patrol processing center. The buses carried women and children who had been flown to California from the overwhelmed border state of Texas.
The protests brought out counter-demonstrators, resulting in dueling messages reflected on signs and banners such as "Proud LEGAL American. It doesn't work any other way," and "Against Illegal Immigration? Great! Go back to Europe!" The Associated Press reported.
President Barack Obama has said that one reason for the increasing numbers of unaccompanied children coming up from Central America is a 2008 law that makes it almost impossible to return them until they appear before an immigration judge. The law, signed by President George W. Bush, added legal protections for such children with the intention of preventing immigration officials from unknowingly sending them back to pimps and drug violence, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Obama last week asked Congress to change the law to make it easier to send them home, thereby speeding up the process of reducing the numbers.
The president also has asked Congress for funding to open up detention centers across the country to provide humane conditions and "make sure that the basic humanitarian needs of those individuals are provided for," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last week. Obama has pointed out the peril for children traveling from Central America to the U.S. border.
"The journey is unbelievably dangerous for these kids," Obama said. "The children who are fortunate enough to survive it will be taken care of while they go through the legal process, but in most cases that process will lead to them being sent back home."
Graham expressed similar sentiments on Sunday.
"We'll have to send them back," he said, "because if you don't, you're going to incentivize people in that part of the world to keep sending their children here. About a third of the little girls are raped, in the process of getting here."
Although Graham considers the current crisis a humanitarian one, he could not avoid questions about stalled immigration bills in Congress, particularly the need for a tighter seal along the border. He said there is plenty of border security in a broad, bipartisan immigration bill he helped get passed in the Senate and also in individual bills proposed by Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Just about every lawmaker says the immigration system needs fixing, and Graham has said repeatedly that Republicans have the most to lose on the national political stage if nothing gets done.
"I don't see how you can effectively win the presidency in 2016 if you adopt self-deportation as the Republican view toward immigration," he said Sunday.
"So there are people in the Republican Party who get it," he said. "But the president is making it hard for us who do get it to work with him."