Tens of thousands of children streaming from chaotic Central American nations to the US border have overwhelmed the government’s ability to respond, senior administration officials said on Wednesday as President Barack Obama visited Texas and urged Congress to move swiftly to approve an emergency spending request for the crisis.
Emerging from a meeting with Republican Governor Rick Perry, Obama said he was open to suggestions that he dispatch National Guard troops to the border with Mexico, but warned such a solution would only work temporarily.
“The problem here is not major disagreement,” Obama said, but rather getting Congress to release the needed money to address the issue. “If they’re interested in solving the problem, then this can be solved. If the preference is for politics, then it won’t be solved.”
But Republican opposition hardened to the president’s US$3.7 billion request, leaving any solution unclear.
In Washington, Republican Senator John McCain, who has supported Obama’s stalled quest to remake the nation’s immigration laws, said he could not support the spending request, saying it would “just perpetuate an unacceptable humanitarian crisis that’s taking place on our southern border”.
In the House of Representatives, Republican Speaker John Boehner was noncommittal about bringing the spending measure to a vote.
“If we don’t secure the border, nothing’s going to change,” Boehner told reporters.
Meanwhile, a group of civil liberties organisations filed a lawsuit in Seattle against the Obama administration, arguing that the federal government is failing to provide the migrant children with legal representation.
And even some Democrats said Obama would be well-advised to visit the border and see the situation for himself.
Asked about Obama’s decision not to go to the border, White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that other administration officials have done so.
“So the president is well aware of exactly what’s happening,” Earnest told reporters.
The head of US Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, told senators on Wednesday that the number of unaccompanied minors picked up since October now stands at 57,000, up from 52,000 in mid-June, and more than double what it was at the same time last year. They’re coming mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, often fleeing gang violence.
But their arrival also appears to stem from rumours that they would be allowed to stay if they reached the US.
Juan Osuna, director of the executive office of immigration review at the Department of Justice, said that “we are facing the largest caseload that the agency has ever seen.”
Osuna said that deportation cases involving families and unaccompanied children would be moved to the top of court dockets. That means lower priority cases will take even longer to wend through a system where there’s a backlog of more than 360,000 pending deportation cases.
Obama’s emergency spending request would add more judges, increase detention facilities, help care for the kids and pay for programmes in Central America to try to deter them from coming.
The Obama administration says it wants more flexibility to turn the children around more quickly, since current law requires minors from countries other than Mexico or Canada to go through the court system in what is often a lengthy process. But immigrant advocates and some Democrats are balking at that idea, arguing that it would jeopardise the children’s legal protections and put them at risk.
For Obama, the border crisis has added another layer of complications to the already fraught debate in Washington over the nation’s broken immigration laws. With no indication that congressional Republicans plan to take up comprehensive legislation, Obama has vowed to make needed changes through his executive powers.