By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Declaring that the United States needs more than a border wall to stem a surge of Central American migrants, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham on Wednesday proposed additional steps such as holding migrant families for longer periods and hiring more immigration judges.
The senior Republican senator's latest plan to tackle America's problem with undocumented immigrants also would result in unaccompanied minors from Central America being sent back to their countries of origin.
Also, asylum applications from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras would be filed at centers in those countries and in Mexico, not in the United States, under Graham's plan.
While Graham is known to have President Donald Trump's ear, proposals similar to the senator's have been rejected in the past by Democrats, who control the House of Representatives.
Trump will give a speech on immigration policy on Thursday, the White House said on Wednesday.
Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House hardline immigration adviser Stephen Miller were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday talking to senators about Trump's plans.
The White House approach is expected to call for more merit-based immigration. Trump's most-often cited solution, which Congress has refused to fully fund, is a border wall.
"We need the wall," said Graham, of South Carolina, but he added, "A wall will not fix this."
He subdivided the border problem into "illegal immigration, smuggling, sex trafficking, drugs, people trying not to get caught," as well as a second category of asylum claimants, or "people wanting to get caught from Central America because of these loopholes in our law."
He said the border needs to be secured "so that people can’t cross illegally if they are trying to avoid detection." But on another track, he said, "You need to deal with the magnets and loopholes in the law that entice people to come who want to get caught."
Graham proposed letting authorities hold migrant families with children for 100 days instead of the present 20-day limit, while increasing the number of judges dealing with their cases by 500. "We got almost 900,000 backlog of asylum claims. We're gonna wipe out the backlog," Graham said.
Last year, Trump encouraged bipartisan work on an immigration overhaul, but then rejected a proposal produced by Graham, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and others. Since then, numbers of border-crossers have surged, pushing resources to the breaking point.
John Sanders, acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, said on Wednesday that the number of people apprehended at the border since Oct. 1 was nearly 520,000, the highest level in a decade.
Durbin said Graham's proposal was "a non-starter as legislation, but it is a starter for debate. So I welcome the fact that he's going to put it before the committee and open the discussion on amendments."
Proposals to reform immigration law have defied bipartisan consensus for years, with polarization hardening over Trump's wall proposal.
"I realize that this process has got to have some Democratic buy-in," Graham said. "I'm just asking the president to encourage Democrats to work with us."
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and David Gregorio)