WASHINGTON D.C. – President Barack Obama is asking Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to better respond to the influx of immigrants illegally crossing the border into Texas, White House officials said Tuesday.
The money would bolster border security, go after smugglers bringing immigrant children illegally to the United States, speed up the processing of the immigrant influx, improve care for youngsters while in federal custody, and help Central American countries stem the tide heading north, the officials told reporters in a conference call.
For now, many of the tens of thousands of young Hispanic immigrants who have illegally crossed the border into Texas this year remain in limbo while waiting to be processed and possibly sent back to their home countries.
Obama heading to Texas
The immigration crisis roiling Washington and the Southwestern states most affected veered further into the political arena on Tuesday as Obama prepared for a visit on Wednesday to the Lone Star State, the epicenter of the immigrant influx.
A surge of undocumented youths from Central America has overwhelmed federal facilities and revived the debate over an immigration policy overhaul, one of the most partisan issues in the already overheated political climate of an election year.
In addition to the emergency funds, the Obama administration will seek more leeway under existing law to speed up the processing of the undocumented newcomers who are overcrowding holding facilities and sparking protests in communities intended as temporary destinations.
It was unclear how much cooperation Obama would get from congressional Republicans, who were to get a briefing on the funding request from budget officials later Tuesday.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the request would be considered, but noted it lacked a component sought by the Republican leader.
“The speaker still supports deploying the National Guard to provide humanitarian support in the affected areas – which this proposal does not address,” said Michael Steel.
Obama has come under criticism from Republicans and some Democrats for not planning to visit the border area during his Texas trip, which will include a Democratic Party fundraising event.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a possible GOP presidential nominee in 2016, called the situation similar to the much-disparaged federal response to Hurricane Katrina by the Bush administration.
“For him to go to Texas and spend two days shaking down donors and never even getting near the border mess he helped create would be like flying into New Orleans in the highest waters of Katrina to eat Creole cooking, but never getting near the 9th Ward, the Superdome, or the Convention Center where thousands languished in squalor,” Huckabee said.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas questioned if the border problem would harm the President in the same way the Katrina response tarnished his predecessor, telling Fox News: “I hope this does not become Obama’s ‘Katrina moment.'”
“An urgent humanitarian situation”
White House officials on Tuesday’s conference call repeatedly emphasized that Obama regarded the immigration crisis as “an urgent humanitarian situation.”
Administration officials blame the immigrant influx from the south on dire conditions in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that cause people to send their children on dangerous journeys to the United States with smugglers who falsely promise the kids won’t get deported.
Critics, however, say the administration invited the problem by halting deportations of some young immigrants who came to the country illegally in past years.
A breakdown of the funding request, which requires approval from the deeply divided Congress, shows a broad approach by the administration to a problem that the critics say should have been anticipated.
Breakdown of funding request
It seeks $1.6 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to bolster customs and border efforts as well as cracking down on smugglers, and $300 million for the State Department to help Mexico and Central American governments counter what officials called “misinformation” by smugglers about what immigrants will face on the journey to the U.S. border and once they arrive.
A main goal is to speed up the processing of arriving young immigrants to send back those who lack legal status. The officials stressed that for most, the likely outcome will be a return home.
Obama’s funding request also seeks $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide appropriate care for unaccompanied children crossing the border.
The officials said that money would allow the government to meet its legal and moral obligations for such youngsters now being crammed in overcrowded facilities in several states while awaiting processing.
In addition, the emergency funding request for the rest of fiscal year 2014, which ends on September 30, seeks an additional $615 million to ensure necessary money to fight wildfires — an issue separate from the immigration matter.
Obama’s trip to Texas set off a political squabble, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry refusing to greet the President at the airport and instead calling for a meeting to discuss the immigration crisis.
In response, Obama invited Perry to a meeting in Dallas with faith leaders and local officials, according to a letter written by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Perry, who is seeking to re-establish his national credentials after a disastrous bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, said Tuesday he looked forward to meeting with Obama.
Perry has said he “readily” welcomes any federal emergency funds, but also has asked that Texas be reimbursed for more than $500 million the state has spent on border security over the past decade.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Sunday the administration will take steps to fix the nation’s broken immigration system, even without the help of Congress.
That’s the same message Obama has given in response to the refusal by House Republicans to take up a Senate-passed immigration reform bill.