President Barack Obama asked Congress on Tuesday for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to help cope with the growing number of unaccompanied children from Central America who are illegally crossing the southern border.
The money would pay for additional Border Patrol agents and judges, more detention facilities, an increase in the prosecution of smuggling networks and a media campaign to discourage parents from sending their children on a potentially dangerous journey to the United States.
Obama announced his request before he travels to Texas on Wednesday to raise money for Democrats and speak about the economy. He won’t visit the border despite an outcry from Republicans for him to do so.
“The problem speaks for itself when the president, who would prefer to hang out with campaign donors and other political supporters, would decide not to have any interaction with those that are directly affected by his failed policies; in this case the failed immigration policies that led to a full-blown humanitarian crisis,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama had been to the border on a couple of previous occasions, as a candidate and as president, and several Cabinet secretaries have visited in recent weeks.
“The president is well aware of exactly what’s happening on the border,” he said. “And what we are focused on right now are not political statements . . . but rather with specific, concrete action, steps that can be taken to mitigate this problem.”
Obama and Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a frequent critic of the president on immigration, will meet in the Dallas area with state and local officials about border security.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama asked lawmakers to “comprehensively address this urgent humanitarian situation.” Congressional leaders of both parties didn’t immediately commit to the proposal.
Administration officials described their approach as an aggressive and cost-effective response spanning the entire federal government to try to prevent border crossings and more quickly process immigrant child cases. They say they hope to “significantly reduce” the wait time in these types of cases, but they didn’t outline a specific timeline.
The number of unaccompanied children traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, most through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, has surged despite an increase in deportations. About 52,000 minors traveling without their parents have been caught at the Southwest border since October.
The administration had been expected to ask Congress for emergency spending of more than $2 billion to deal with the crisis, but the formal request Tuesday was nearly double that figure.
“There was speculation about a $2 billion number. That was a number we never validated or confirmed,” said a White House official with knowledge of the situation, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Earnest said he hoped lawmakers would treat the request – part of the 2014 fiscal budget – as an emergency. He said the administration didn’t plan to provide budget cuts to offset the cost, which Republicans often want.
“Members of both parties have acknowledged that this is an urgent situation, and we hope that members of both parties will act promptly to address it,” Earnest said.
Boehner’s office said the House of Representatives, including a special working group on the border crisis, would consider the request. But his spokesman, Michael Steel, said Boehner “still supports deploying the National Guard to provide humanitarian support in the affected areas, which this proposal does not address.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declined to discuss specifics at a news conference. He acknowledged that an emergency exists and something must be done, but he said, “How we get there I really don’t know at this stage.”
Some Republican lawmakers continued to complain that Obama hasn’t done enough to secure the border, but they still indicated they could support the request.
“I think it’s an emergency. I think the money has to be allocated, but you also have to address the underlying problems,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “It’s a legitimate emergency, but to solve the problem you have to do more than appropriate money.”
Obama announced last week that he’s also asking lawmakers to pass legislation to provide Jeh Johnson, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, with greater discretion to deport immigrants even from Central American countries.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed a law that gave unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries greater legal protections than those who arrive illegally from Mexico or Canada.
“The message has to go that if you cross our border illegally you will be returned immediately,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “If you have a reason for asylum, go to our consulate, go to our embassy, make your case. But don’t come to our border.”
Last week, 225 organizations sent a letter to Obama warning that changing the law could threaten children’s lives. Earnest said the administration was committed to meeting the basic humanitarian needs of the children. About $1.8 billion of the emergency money is for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide care for the children. “At the same time, we are committed to enforcing the law,” Earnest said.
Obama is also asking Congress for $615 million to combat wildfires.