WASHINGTON (AP) — For President Barack Obama, the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is increasingly becoming a political liability, giving Republicans a fresh opportunity to question his administration’s competence and complicating the debate over the nation’s tangled immigration laws.
Still, Obama is resisting calls to visit the border during his two-day fundraising trip to Texas, where he arrives Wednesday afternoon. Instead, Obama will hold a meeting in Dallas to discuss the crisis with faith leaders and Texas officials, including Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016 and a scathing critic of Obama.
Obama’s trip comes one day after he asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to get more resources to the border.
Meanwhile in Washington, Obama administration officials were defending their response to the immigration crisis in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing Wednesday. Several officials, including the Customs and Border Protection head, were arguing the administration is acting aggressively on multiple fronts and that they are trying to increase detention space.
The hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was not focused on Obama’s request for emergency spending, but questions on it were expected.
“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, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate testified before the 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.”
Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said that the number of children 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.
The situation, Kerlikowske said, “is difficult and distressing on a lot of levels.”
Obama’s discussion in Dallas is seen by the White House as a way to address the immigration issue while avoiding awkward scenes at the border. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have arrived there in recent months, many fleeing violence in Central America, but also drawn by rumors that they can stay in the U.S. White House officials say most are unlikely to qualify for humanitarian relief and will be sent back to their home countries.
Obama’s decision to skip a border visit is likely to provide more material for the Republicans and handful of Democrats who say the president hasn’t responded quickly and forcefully enough to the mounting crisis. Perry says. The White House has failed to respond to his repeated warnings about a flood of minors at the border.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, raised the prospect that Obama’s failure to take a firsthand look at the border crisis could be similar to former President George W. Bush viewing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 from the air instead of on the ground.
“I’m sure that President Bush thought the same thing, that he could just look at everything from up in the sky, and then he owned it after a long time,” Cuellar said on Fox News.
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House wasn’t worried about the scene of the president traveling to Texas without visiting the border. Officials also pointed to Obama’s request to Congress on Tuesday for additional resources at the border as a sign of the president’s engagement in the crisis.
If approved by Congress, the funding would go to increase detention, care and transportation of unaccompanied children, help speed the removal of adults with children by increasing the capacity of immigration courts and increase prosecution of smuggling networks. The money also would help increase surveillance at the border and help Central American countries repatriate border-crossers sent back from the United States.
Republicans criticized Obama for pulling back on plans to pursue legal changes that would allow the administration to send the minors back to Central America more quickly. The proposals had infuriated immigrant advocates, who say the changes could result in harsh treatment of children and eliminate their legal protections.
The border crisis has added a new wrinkle to the stalled immigration debate in Washington. With no sign that Republicans in the House of Representatives planned to move forward on a comprehensive overhaul bill passed by the Senate last year, Obama announced that he would seek to address the matter through executive actions.
Republicans say it’s that same approach that has led to the current crisis. They argue that Obama’s 2012 decision to allow some young people brought to the U.S. illegally to stay in the country has fueled the rumors in Central America that all of the minors crossing the border can stay.
But Democrats argue that Republicans are simply trying to shift attention away from the party’s inability to act on a politically potent issue for Hispanics, a key voting bloc Republicans have failed to attract in the past two presidential elections.