BROWNSVILLE, Texas – President Barack Obama will seek more than $2 billion to respond to the flood of immigrants illegally entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas and ask for new powers to deal with returning immigrant children apprehended while traveling without their parents, a White House official said Saturday.
With Obama looking to Congress for help with what he has called an "urgent humanitarian situation," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi visited a Border Patrol facility in Brownsville that held unaccompanied children. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children, most from Central America, have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally since October.
"The fact is these are children — children and families," Pelosi said. "We have a moral responsibility to address this in a dignified way."
Obama plans to make the requests of Congress in a letter to be sent Monday, the White House official said. Details of the emergency appropriation, including the exact amount and how it will be spent, will come after lawmakers return from their holiday recess on July 7, said the official, who was not authorized to speak by name and discussed the requests on condition of anonymity.
Obama will also ask that the Homeland Security Department be granted the authority to apply "fast track" procedures to the screening and deportation of all immigrant children traveling without their parents and that stiffer penalties be applied to those who smuggle children across the border, the official said. Obama's requests were reported first by The New York Times.
In Brownsville, Pelosi said she holds little hope that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform this year but that politics should be set aside.
"A few days ago I would have been more optimistic about comprehensive immigration reform," Pelosi said. "I thought that we had been finding a way because we have been very patient and respectful of (Speaker of the House John Boehner) trying to do it one way or another. I don't think he gives us much reason to be hopeful now, but we never give up. There's still the month of July."
U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprise primary loss this month almost certainly doomed the chance for an immigration overhaul in the GOP-controlled House this year. Cantor, R-Va., had spoken in favor of citizenship for immigrants brought illegally to this country as youths. But he lost to a political novice who made immigration the race's central issue, accusing Cantor of embracing "amnesty" and open borders.
This past week, a leading House supporter of policy changes said legislative efforts on the issue were dead. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who's been one of the most bullish Democrats about the chances for action, said he had given up. Boehner's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Republicans have criticized Obama's immigration policies, arguing they've left the impression that women and children from Central America will be allowed to stay in the United States. The administration has worked to send a clear message in recent weeks that new arrivals will be targeted for deportation. But immigrants arriving from those countries say they are fleeing pervasive gang violence and crushing poverty.
The Border Patrol in South Texas has been overwhelmed for several months by an influx of unaccompanied children and parents traveling with young children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Unlike Mexican immigrants arrested after entering the U.S. illegally, those from Central America cannot be as easily returned to their countries.
The U.S. had only one family detention center in Pennsylvania, so most adults traveling with young children were released and told to check in with the local immigration office when they arrived at their destination. A new facility for families is being prepared in New Mexico.
Children who traveled alone, like those visited by Pelosi in Brownsville, are handled differently. By law, they must be transferred to the custody of the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest. From there, they are sent into a network of shelters until they can be reunited with family members while awaiting their day in immigration court.
Also Saturday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said up to 2,000 unaccompanied immigrant children could be transferred from overcrowded facilities in McAllen, Texas, to his county by the end of next month. He said the plan is to have youngsters spend about three weeks in the North Texas county before hopefully being placed with relatives who are elsewhere in the U.S. The federal government will cover the costs, Jenkins said.
Meanwhile, Pelosi said immigrants' cases should be handled on a case-by-case basis.
"We don't want our good nature abused by those who would misrepresent what's happening in the United States on the subject of immigration to affect how we deal with a refugee problem," she said.
The situation is drawing attention and politicians from both parties to South Texas. While Pelosi was speaking in Brownsville, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, appeared with the first lady of Honduras, Ana Garcia de Hernandez, in McAllen.
Next week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman and Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte is scheduled to lead members of that panel to the Rio Grande Valley, and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, is scheduled to hold a field hearing Thursday in McAllen.
Pelosi said she came to Brownsville at the invitation of local U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela to find out what Congress can do to help.