WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama appealed to Congress on Tuesday for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to deal with the immigration crisis on the nation's southern border, where unaccompanied children have been showing up by the thousands in a human drama that's causing a political storm in Washington and beyond.
Obama himself was flying to Texas today, a trip designed mostly for political fundraising for Democrats but now including a meeting on immigration with Gov. Rick Perry and religious and local leaders in Dallas. He rejected pressure from the Republican governor to visit the border for a firsthand look.
In Washington, Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill seemed open to approving the emergency money, which would go toward hiring more immigration judges and asylum officers, building more detention facilities, boosting deterrence and enforcement and increasing surveillance along the border with Mexico. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would act on it this month.
Obama said in a formal letter of request that the money was needed to “address this urgent humanitarian situation.”
But Senate Democrats voiced skepticism about other changes the White House has said it wants that would send the minors back to Central America more quickly, partly by limiting their existing rights to court hearings.
Those proposals, which are not part of Tuesday's request, have infuriated immigrant advocates who say they would result in harsher treatment of kids and eliminate their legal protections.
“Everybody's very concerned. I'm one of them,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “I just want to make sure that at the end of the day we're being fair, humane and doing this in an orderly way.”
At the same time Republicans criticized Obama for stepping back from asking for those legal changes, which the White House initially had said would come in concert with the emergency spending request. The White House now says those proposals will come later.
“He just decided not to do that because of the pushback he got from some in his own political base,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “We need to solve the problem, but you don't need to just ignore the cause of the current crisis. And that requires more than just appropriating $3.7 billion for additional judges and the like.”
The back-and-forth came as lawmakers reconvened on Capitol Hill after a weeklong July 4 recess and suggested political struggles ahead over the unfolding situation at the border. More than 50,000 young people have showed up unaccompanied since last fall.
In the current crisis, it's resulted in children from Central American countries being released to family members or into foster care while they face long waits for court hearings they may never attend.
Kids from Mexico, by contrast, are screened by Border Patrol agents who can decide to send them back unless determining they have a fear of return that merits additional screening. The administration wants to be able to treat Central American children in much that same way, though officials say they want to retain the children's right to due process.
The White House spending request includes $1.1 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to help deter border-crossers and increase enforcement; $433 million for Customs and Border Protection to cover overtime costs and for additional facilities to detain unaccompanied children while they are in Border Patrol custody; $64 million for the Department of Justice to hire immigration judges; and $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services for the care of unaccompanied children, including shelter and medical care.