President Obama on Wednesday asked for Congress to give him "flexibility" to deport illegal immigrants from Central America more quickly, saying the solution to the surge of families and children trying to jump the border now lies with Congress, not him.
On a trip to Texas Wednesday, he again argued there was no need for him to visit the border himself to see the problem firsthand, saying his aides are giving him enough information. And he accused those who are pressing him for a personal visit of trying to politicize the issue.
He also said he would be "happy to consider" deploying the National Guard to the border to help out if it could earn the support of some Republicans for his new $3.7 billion supplemental spending request for 2014, which he submitted earlier this week. But the president said Congress must act either way.
"This should not be hard to at least get the supplemental done. The question is, are we more interested in politics, or are we more interested in solving the problem?" Mr. Obama said in Dallas, several hundred miles from the border, where he had traveled to raise money for Democrats ahead of November's elections.
He did carve out time for a meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others, and emerged to say he and the Republican governor — who had pleaded for a border visit — were actually in agreement on the steps that need to be taken.
"Five hundred miles south of here, in the Rio Grande Valley, there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding that has been created by bad public policy, in particular the failure to secure the border," Mr. Perry said in his own statement after the meeting. "Securing the border is attainable, and the president needs to commit the resources necessary to get this done."
The president has struggled to get a handle on the surge of children and families, and his administration has acknowledged a number of problems as it tries to fight the flood coming from Central American nations.
Testifying to Congress earlier in the day, administration officials said only about half of all juveniles show up for their deportation hearings in the U.S., meaning the rest of them disappear into the shadows with the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already here. Months into the crisis, the government still doesn't have a specific breakdown for unaccompanied minors specifically.
Mark H. Greenberg, acting assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the department has a policy that bans social workers from asking the legal status of parents who come to claim their children in the U.S. That means many of the children are turned over to illegal immigrants, who themselves have an incentive not to bring their children back for deportation hearings.
The proof of the problem is in the final numbers.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said of 20,805 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who were caught at the border in 2013, only 1,669 were sent home — fewer than one in 10.
He said that message has gotten back to those countries and explains the increasing flow.
"If you were one of these children, and you were there in one of these countries, wouldn't you think your odds are pretty good?" Mr. McCain fumed.
The Justice Department has said it will try to send more judges to the border to process the cases involving the children faster — though officials said that will take away from working on other cases in the interior of the U.S., which means other deportations may slow.
Still, Thomas S. Winkowski, a top official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said ICE agents have seen some signs of early successes in deterrence by opening more detention facilities to hold families who have come across the border. In the past, almost all of those families from Central America were released in the often futile hope they would return for deportation hearings.
"We're already seeing people saying, 'I didn't realize I was going to detention; I thought I was going to be released,'" Mr. Winkowski said.
In his remarks Wednesday, Mr. Obama said Congress should change a 2008 law that says children from countries other than Mexico and Canada must be turned over to social workers rather than quickly deported, which is what happens to those from contiguous countries. Mr. Obama said he wants "flexibility" so he can decide in which cases deportations should be speeded up.
And there appears to be a bipartisan consensus developing around that change — though some immigrant-rights groups are pushing back.
"The vast majority of these children have relatives in the U.S., and it's the humane thing to do to allow them to stay with loved ones, not deport them," said Leoncio Velasquez, president of Hondurenos Unidos de Los Angeles.
The surge has forced several policy and rhetorical reversals from Mr. Obama. For years, he had said the border was finally secured — but his push for additional border security in his new spending package amounts to an admission that wasn't true.
And while he said violence in Central America is driving children and families from those countries, he acknowledged that their understanding of U.S. immigration policy — even if it's incorrect — is drawing them here.
On Wednesday the president said the surge is not a short-term problem, but he sought to push responsibility onto Congress, saying he's taken all the steps he can on his own and that it's up to lawmakers to pass the spending bill to boost resources.
But many on Capitol Hill say it is the president's own slow response and his previous nondeportation policies that have made the problem worse.
And the way agencies have responded to Congress — often with tight controls over information — has not helped.
HHS officials turned away one Oklahoma congressman who made a surprise visit to a holding facility in his state, prompting a protest from Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. He said members of Congress should always be allowed to visit — especially when they show up unannounced — as a key part of their ability to conduct oversight.
Mr. McCain, meanwhile, was furious at rules that prohibited him from taking photos of a Homeland Security holding facility in Nogales, Arizona, or speaking to the immigrants being held there.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said the rules were in place to protect the privacy rights of the illegal immigrant children, but Mr. McCain said that wasn't going to cut it with him.
"I want it fixed, and I want it fixed immediately, understand?" the senator said. "If a member of Congress can't visit a facility within his own state — the people of Arizona elected me, and I'm not supposed to even carry a cellphone with me? Mister, you have overstepped your responsibilities and your authorities."
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