WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of children streaming from chaotic Central American nations to the U.S. border have overwhelmed the government’s ability to respond, senior Obama administration officials testified Wednesday as they urged senators to agree to the president’s emergency spending request for the crisis.
But as President Barack Obama traveled to Texas, Republican opposition hardened to his $3.7 billion request, leaving any solution unclear. At the same time, the political pressures on the president appeared to grow from all sides, as Republicans denounced him on the Senate floor, and even some Democrats began to join GOP demands for him to visit the U.S.-Mexican border – calls the White House continued to reject.
Obama was meeting with local leaders late Wednesday on the immigration situation – but in Dallas, not at the border. He also was meeting with Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has prodded him to visit the border.
In Washington, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has supported Obama’s stalled quest to remake the nation’s immigration laws, said he could not support the president’s spending request.
“I cannot vote for a provision which will then just perpetuate an unacceptable humanitarian crisis that’s taking place on our southern border,” McCain said on the Senate floor, where he was joined by fellow Arizonan Jeff Flake and Texas Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. They took take turns blaming Obama’s policies for causing the border situation, contending that his efforts to relax some deportations have contributed to rumors circulating in Central America that once here, migrant kids will be allowed to stay.
In the House, 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. And if you look at the president’s request, it’s all more about continuing to deal with the problem,” Boehner told reporters.
Meanwhile immigration advocacy groups attacked the spending request from the left, saying it was overly focused on enforcement. A group of civil liberties organizations filed a lawsuit in Seattle against the Obama administration, arguing that the federal government is failing to provide the minors with legal representation.
And even some Democrats said Obama would be well-advised to visit the border and see the situation for himself.
“Going out there and talking to people who live this day in and day out – that’s the perspective that’s missing,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
The White House didn’t budge. Obama flew to Dallas to discuss the issue at a closed-door meeting with Perry and others. Asked about Obama’s decision not to go to the border, White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that other administration officials have done so and have a detailed understanding of the situation.
“So the president is well aware of exactly what’s happening,” Earnest told reporters. “The president has sufficient visibility of the problem there to understand what kind of solutions are going to work best.”
Perry, who has pressed Obama to go, has visited the Rio Grande Valley twice since the surge in unaccompanied child immigrants gained national attention. On June 23, he visited a Border Patrol facility and spoke of an “untenable situation.” On July 3, Perry testified at a U.S. House Homeland Security Committee field hearing in McAllen, reiterating his call for Obama to come see the situation at the border
The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, told senators in Washington 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.
The situation, Kerlikowske said, “is difficult and distressing on a lot of levels.”
“We have not been what I would say successful yet” in ensuring that the unaccompanied kids are processed by the Border Patrol as quickly as required, said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate as he testified alongside Kerlikowske before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“The children continue to come across the border. It’s a very fluid situation,” Fugate said. “Although we have made progress, that progress is oftentimes disrupted when we see sudden influxes of kids coming in faster than we can discharge them, and we back up.”
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 programs in Central America to try to keep them from coming.
McCain and other Republicans dismissed those measures as inadequate, saying the only way to stem the tide would be to deport the kids more rapidly.
“They will do nothing ... nothing that planeloads upon planeloads of children would do,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
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 jeopardize the children’s legal protections and put them at risk.
Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell, Julie Pace, Jim Kuhnhenn and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.