TEXAS – He’ll be in Texas on Wednesday, but President Barack Obama has no plans to visit the border area where tens of thousands of young immigrants have illegally entered the country in recent months to create what his administration labels an urgent humanitarian problem.
The trip to the Lone Star State — the epicenter of the immigration influx — includes a Democratic Party fundraising event, and after some political squabbling, a meeting with Republican Gov. Rick Perry. That’s not enough for GOP critics and even some of Obama’s fellow Democrats.
“This is a real crisis and the President needs to treat it as such and I think traveling from Dallas to the border is a 500-mile trip,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told CNN on Wednesday. “That’s not far to go on Air Force One.”
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 Ninth Ward, the Superdome, or the Convention Center where thousands languished in squalor,” Huckabee said.
In a conference call Tuesday, White House officials repeatedly emphasized that Obama regarded the immigration crisis as “an urgent humanitarian situation.” They announced the President is asking Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to better respond to it.
The 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.
U.S. authorities estimate that between 60,000 to 80,000 children without parents will cross the border this year.
Obama administration officials blame the immigrant influx 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.
Now, human smugglers tell people desperate for their children to escape tough conditions in Central America that the United States won’t send them back, according to Cornyn and others who say the immigrants face threats including assault, rape and other hardships on the journey through Mexico to the border.
“The vulnerability that the cartels and other criminal organizations have figured out, because they’re making big money off of transporting these kids up through Mexico from Central America, is the lack of detention pending a court hearing,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “What’s happened is these children are placed with family members in the United States, and given a notice to appear for a later court hearing. Some have called this a notice to disappear, not a notice to appear,” as most don’t show up.
While Obama won’t go to the border to personally witness the impact of the immigrant flood, his agenda includes a meeting with faith leaders and local officials offering to help deal with the influx.
The White House invited Perry to attend that gathering after the governor called for a meeting to discuss immigration but refused simply to greet Obama at the airport.
Perry, who is seeking to reestablish his national credentials after a disastrous bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, said Tuesday he looked forward to meeting with the President.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas says Obama should go to the border to see the problem for himself.
Obama’s emergency funding request is just over 10% of the $30 billion in proposed border security funding included in the Senate-passed immigration reform bill that House Republican leaders have stalled.
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.
The request includes $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide care for unaccompanied children crossing the border.
Government officials said that money would allow the United States to meet its legal and moral obligations for such youngsters now being crammed in overcrowded facilities in several states while awaiting processing.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon said it was processing requests from HHS to house more minors, and Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the matter was still under discussion. But U.S. officials told CNN’s Barbara Starr the requests cover about 5,000 new beds at military facilities. There is space for about 3,600 children, and the current arrangement is to use military facilities for up to 120 days.
Kirby wouldn’t speculate whether the time frame would be extended, although he said it’s something that would be discussed.
It was unclear how much cooperation Obama would get from congressional Republicans. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the request would be considered.
On the Senate side, Republicans argued for changing a 2008 law signed by former President George W. Bush that requires deportation hearings before sending back children from countries that do not border the U.S.
“I don’t think we can solve the problem unless we revisit” the law, Senator Cornyn said Tuesday.
Democrats, however, want to keep the law intact to ensure that any children who deserve asylum get due process in the form of a full hearing.
“I’m not inclined to support any policy change that ultimately undermines existing law and would violate the right of someone who is actually a legitimate refugee,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat of Cuban descent who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Each child should be able to make their case as to why they qualify. Many will be sent back but others will qualify.”