The White House said Monday it was “likely” that immigrant children facing mortal danger in their home countries would be allowed to stay in the United States.
The comments come amid a growing debate over a 2008 law that allows many of the children flooding across the southern border an automatic asylum hearing.
“What that means is it means that if a immigration judge determines that they face a credible threat of death upon their return to their home country, then, again, I'm not an immigration judge, but it is likely that the immigration judge will find that that person should be granted humanitarian relief.”
Earnest's comments underscored the careful balancing act the White House is attempting on the border, looking to appease both its Democratic base — which has expressed concern over the treatment of the migrant children — and Republicans eager to blame the crisis on mismanaged enforcement by the administration.
Republicans want to change the 2008 law so that immigrant children from Central American countries largely driving the surge at the border are treated the same as children from Mexico and Canada, who don’t get an automatic hearing.
Democrats on Capitol Hill, however, have raised warnings that such a change could harm children seeking safety in the United States.
The White House has expressed an interest in changing the law, but has offered few specifics on what it would support.
Earnest’s comments on Monday appeared to at least signal a tonal break from last week, when he said that a majority of children crossing the border would not qualify for asylum and would be sent back to their home countries.
Over the weekend, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is considering a 2016 presidential run, said the U.S. should not turn away immigrant children without due process.
“We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” O'Malley told CNN.
Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also voiced objection to proposals that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to circumvent the asylum process for the flood of immigrant children, clearing the backlog by immediately routing many of the children into deportation proceedings.
But new legislation offered by two Texas lawmakers — Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat — would allow Border Patrol agents to turn children away more quickly at the border, without a asylum hearing.
The White House wouldn't say Monday if it supported such legislation.
"We'll wait until it's introduced and then we'll review the draft," Earnest said.
But the spokesman did say the White House supported greater “discretion” for the administration to respond to the crisis.
“What we are looking to do is get greater authority to more efficiently enforce this law,” Earnest said.
At the same time, he insisted the president was committed to “balance the legitimate humanitarian needs of those individuals who are apprehended along the border.”
“We certainly would ensure that they receive the due process to which they are entitled,” Earnest said.