WASHINGTON - The nation's yearlong deliberation over immigration has taken a head-snapping detour.
What was once a debate over how to fix a broken system and provide a path to citizenship for millions has become a race to decide how to increase border patrols and send people back quickly to their country of origin.
The sudden rise in the number of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border has refocused attention on immigration, but hardly under the terms that President Barack Obama and immigrant advocates once envisioned.
Obama had demanded action on a broad change in the law that would have given millions of immigrants illegally in the United States a way to citizenship while spending more on border security. When Republicans balked, he threatened to act on his own. But now the White House says it's focused on addressing the influx of border-crossers and returning as many as quickly as the government can.
Republican lawmakers had decided to scuttle any votes on a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws this year. Now, they are urging prompt legislative action to stem the flow of Central Americans into the United States. Some Republicans even want Obama to take decisive action himself, a shift from their usual criticism that he has abused his executive powers.
The divisions fall mostly along partisan lines, but the circumstances also have caused some splits among Democrats and led immigration advocates to question Obama's focus on detention and deportation.
Some questions and answers about how we got to this upended state of affairs.
Q. Haven't illegal border crossings been dropping?
A. Yes. From 1990 to 2007, apprehensions by the Border Patrol of people crossing illegally averaged nearly 1.17 million a year; some of the highest were from 1998 to 2000. By 2012, they had dropped to nearly 365,000. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. rose from an estimated 3.5 million in 1990 to a peak of 12.2 million in 2007. The number then fell to 11.3 million in 2009 and has remained statistically stable since despite some indications it might be slightly rising.
The lower numbers have been attributed variously to stricter enforcement on the border, the U.S. economic downturn and improved economic conditions in Mexico.
Q. Where is the increase occurring?
A. The influx is largely by families with children or by minors traveling alone. From October 2012 through the end of last September, the Border Patrol apprehended about 24,000 unaccompanied children at the border. But between October and the end of this June, the number shot up to 57,000. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress that the number is accelerating so fast that it could reach 90,000 by the end of September. Most are coming from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Q. Why the focus on children?
A. In 2008, in the waning days of President George W. Bush's administration, Congress passed a law designed to protect children from trafficking by gangs and other criminals. It set up a system to help provide humanitarian relief and possible asylum for children who are victims of trafficking and who face continuing threats back home. The system provides a quicker process for children from Mexico and Canada. Under the law, they can be interviewed by a Border Patrol officer, who makes an initial determination whether the child deserves to have his case heard by an immigration judge. If the officer determines the minor is not a victim of trafficking or does not face a credible fear of persecution, the child can be immediately sent back across the border.
The process is different for minors from other countries. They are allowed to make their case directly to an immigration judge; that process can take years amid a backlog of cases. In the meantime, those children remain in the U.S, with family members or with sponsors while they await hearings in the clogged system.
Q. But why such a sudden jump in numbers?
A. Crime, gang violence, poverty across Central America, a desire to reunite with parents or other relatives. White House officials also say smugglers have persuaded families to pay them to bring children to the U.S. by lying to them about their fate in this country.
Republicans are blaming Obama for deciding in 2012 that certain immigrants who came to the United States illegally before 2007 and before they turned 16 could defer their immigration proceedings and be eligible for work authorization. GOP critics say that decision encouraged minors to rush to the U.S. in the belief that they would be allowed to stay, even though they wouldn't qualify.
Q. How does Obama want to deal with the crisis?
A. Obama sent Congress a request for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to increase the number of Health and Human Services facilities for the minors and to tighten border enforcement. Some money would be used to help Central American countries repatriate border-crossers and expand the number of U.S. immigration judges. Obama has asked for unspecified broader authorities for the Department of Homeland Security to more quickly process and deport border-crossers. Johnson, the department's head, has said he would like the Border Patrol to deal with Central American minors the same way it deals with Mexican unaccompanied minors. The Obama administration is processing the recent arrivals ahead of others in the overwhelmed immigration system in hopes of discouraging more minors from coming.
Q. What does Congress want to do?
A. Various Republican-driven proposals would change the 2008 law and allow Border Patrol agents to deal with Central American minors in the same way they process Mexican border-crossers. That means they could be turned back immediately if an agent determines the individual has no claim for asylum.
House Republicans have called for sending National Guard troops to the border. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has proposed ending Obama's 2012 policy of deferring immigration proceedings for those who entered the U.S. as children before 2007. In addition to changing the 2008 law, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, favor an increase in immigration judges and in the number of refugee applications that the U.S. can process inside El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Q. Is there agreement on any of that?
A. Hardly. Administration officials have indicated support for changing the 2008 law, but the White House has not proposed a specific fix amid complaints from advocacy groups. Its position about what it would accept is unclear.
Republicans say Obama's request for $3.7 billion amounts to a "blank check" and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this past week he wasn't as optimistic as he would like to be that a deal could be reached before the end of July, before lawmakers go on break. Republicans want to link increased spending to changes in the law. Many Democrats and immigration advocates don't want changes to the law, saying the Border Patrol screenings currently used on Mexican border-crossers are inadequate and would result in minors returning to gang violence and worse in their home communities.