By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will seek $3.7 billion in emergency funds from Congress to meet the country’s “moral obligation” to care for unaccompanied minors who have flooded in recent months to the southwestern border, White House officials said Tuesday.
Nearly half the money would go to the Department of Health and Human Services for food, housing, and medical care for the tens of thousands of children and teenagers who have arrived at the border, senior administration officials told reporters.
The rest of the money would be aimed at deterring further migrants by strengthening law enforcement, going after smuggling networks that ferry people from Central America and expanding the number of deportation hearings.
The spending plan, nearly double the $2 billion the White House initially said was the minimum amount it would seek, is certain to raise concern among budget hawks in Congress.
The request reflects the president’s dilemma in responding to the estimated 52,000 children who have crossed the border since October, many of them reporting that they’re fleeing violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Obama has called the border situation a humanitarian crisis and is under pressure from advocates for immigrants to treat the arriving children humanely. At the same time, White House officials say they need to quickly find a way to stop the flood of new arrivals and send a message to families in Central America that the migrants are not welcome and will be returned to their home countries.
Advisers to the president are mindful of both tasks — and of the varying constituencies paying close attention.
“We’re talking about children who are coming either alone or in the hands of smugglers,” one top White House official said Tuesday, requesting anonymity to speak about the internal administration response. “That’s how the president views it, that’s how the administration is approaching it.
“But while we are focused on making sure we provide proper care,” the official said, “we also intend to apply the law.
“Children who do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be returned, and we are seeking to return them more expeditiously,” the adviser said.
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that most of the recently arrived children would not qualify for humanitarian relief.
An aide to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), said the House would take a look at the request, and immediately pointed out what his side sees as an omission.
“The speaker still supports deploying the National Guard to provide humanitarian support in the affected areas — which this proposal does not address,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
In the Senate, Democrats have scheduled a hearing on Thursday to hear from administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Much of the concern among Republicans is about clearing and securing the border. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose state has received most of the migrants, has called the Obama response to the crisis “inept.”
White House officials said Tuesday they had invited Perry to meet with the president during a two-day trip to the state this week.
Obama also has run into objections from Democrats to proposals for speeding up deportations of the migrant youths.
White House officials believe that the lengthy hearing process, which can routinely take well over a year, has encouraged families to gamble that their children would be safer coming to the United States. They want to change a law enacted late in the George W. Bush administration that guarantees procedural protections for unaccompanied minors arriving from countries other than Mexico and Canada.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he has “grave concerns” about giving the White House greater latitude to speed up deportations.
“Let’s not forget these kids are fleeing as a last resort to escape what is too often guaranteed death at the hands of drug cartels and gangs in their countries,” Menendez said Monday.
Obama announced last week that he would make a dual request of Congress, both for the money to stem the tide of immigrants and for the change in the law to deport migrant youths more quickly.
But in the administration pitch on Tuesday, officials focused only on the supplemental spending. Advisers to the president said they still intend to seek a change in the law but that they are starting with the money first.
Photo: Allen Ormond via Flickr
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