Obama heads to Texas to address ‘urgent humanitarian situation’
(CNN) — President Barack Obama travels to Texas, the epicenter of the immigrant influx, on Wednesday.
But the trip has come under criticism from Republicans and some Democrats because, while it includes a Democratic Party fundraising event, it doesn’t stop at the border area where the flood of immigrants cross illegally into the United States.
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 9th 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.” And that 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.
The Texas trip will include a meeting with the state’s Republican governor, Rick Perry. But even that came about after a political squabble.
Perry refused to greet the President at the airport and instead called for a meeting to discuss the immigration crisis.
In response, Obama invited Perry to a meeting in Dallas with faith leaders and local officials.
Perry, who is seeking to re-establish his national credentials after a disastrous bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, said Tuesday he looked forward to meeting with Obama.
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.
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.
Tens of thousands of young Hispanic immigrants who have illegally crossed the border into Texas this year remain in limbo while waiting to be processed and possibly sent back to their home countries.
A main goal is to speed up the processing of arriving young immigrants to send back those who lack legal status.
Obama’s funding request also seeks $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide appropriate care for unaccompanied children crossing the border.
The officials said that money would allow the government 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 currently is space for about 3,600 children.
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 GOP President George W. Bush that requires deportation hearings before sending back children from non-bordering countries.
They blame the process for a backlog created by the surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America entering the United States illegally from Mexico.
“I don’t think we can solve the problem unless we revisit” the law, said conservative Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
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.”
CNN’s Greg Clary, Deirdre Walsh, Ted Barrett and Mariano Castillo contributed to this report, which was written by Tom Cohen in Washington.
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