WASHINGTON — President Obama urged Congress on Tuesday to quickly provide almost $4 billion to confront a surge of young migrants from Central America crossing the border into Texas, calling it “an urgent humanitarian situation.”
But the request immediately became entangled in the fierce political debate over immigration: Republicans said they were wary of Obama’s request and could not immediately support it, given what they called his administration’s failure to secure the Mexican border after years of illegal crossings. Obama could face resistance from members of his own party as well.
The president said he needed the money to set up new detention facilities, conduct more aerial surveillance, and hire immigration judges and Border Patrol agents to respond to the flood of 52,000 children. Their sudden mass migration has overwhelmed local resources and touched off protests from residents angry about the impact on the local economy. In a letter to congressional leaders, Obama urged them to “act expeditiously” on his request.
Republican lawmakers who have long demanded tougher enforcement of immigration laws along the border expressed cautious support Tuesday for beefing up the federal presence in the Rio Grande Valley, where most of the children have been crossing into the United States.
But many Republicans, especially in the House, remain deeply suspicious of the president’s commitment, a mistrust that led to a stalemate on a broader immigration overhaul and now threatens to at least delay speedy passage of Obama’s $3.7 billion spending request.
“Let’s remember, this administration went around for years saying the border has never been more secure than it is now,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016. “I think that’s been exposed as a fallacy over the last three weeks.”
Speaker John A. Boehner said the president’s plan failed to deploy the National Guard, an idea the White House said would not be effective. And Representative John Carter of Texas said he was wary of any measure that gave Obama too much autonomy.
“The president caused this self-inflicted crisis on the border by refusing to enforce the law,” said Carter, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, which is likely to be asked to approve the request. “And now he is requesting a $3.7 billion bailout from the taxpayers to rectify his mistakes.”
Some Democrats, like Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have expressed strong misgivings about any plan that would allow for unaccompanied children to be sent back home to dangerous situations.
The charged politics will shadow a long-planned trip that Obama began Tuesday and will include a two-day stop in Texas. The trip will underscore the difficulties for the White House on immigration. The president is calling for immediate action on the border even as he remains under pressure by activists to relax deportations.
After insisting that Obama had no plans to visit the Texas-Mexico border, White House officials said he would meet with Governor Rick Perry.
Perry, who is considering a second run for the Republican presidential nomination, had declined to participate in a photo opportunity with Obama in front of Air Force One, prompting a last-minute offer by the White House for the two to meet.
A Perry spokesman said they would meet privately and attend a round-table discussion with religious leaders and local officials.
The president’s funding request is certain to revive legislative passions that prompted Obama to promise sweeping executive actions to get around Republican opposition to a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. Republicans in both chambers hinted Tuesday that they might insist on corresponding spending cuts or make other demands that Obama and his allies are likely to oppose.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s number two Republican, said Obama’s request lacked the substantive policy changes needed to deal with issues like detaining those who cross the border illegally and ensuring that they show up for court dates once they are apprehended.
“Apparently the president has given up on any effort to effect the kind of reforms that he knows and his administration knows are necessary,” Cornyn said.
White House officials said the president was not backing away from a request last week for more flexibility in how enforcement agents treat the Central American migrants who are surging across the border.
A 2008 law aimed at combating human trafficking requires officials to provide extra legal protections for migrants from countries that do not share a border with the United States.