Border crisis 'not theater,' Obama chides
DALLAS — President Obama, seeking to keep a humanitarian crisis at the Mexico border from becoming a deeper political liability, pushed back on Wednesday at critics who have cast his administration's response to the influx of unaccompanied children as slow and ineffective.
To those pressing Obama to visit the border during his two-day trip to Texas, he retorted: “This is not theater. This is a problem.”
Among Obama's harshest critics has been Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate who is mulling another run for the White House. Perry greeted Obama upon his arrival in the evening, then discussed the situation at the border with him privately and during a larger meeting with local officials and religious leaders.
Obama cast his meeting with Perry as “constructive” and argued that he is seeking to do much of what the governor is calling for, including sending additional resources to the border to make the deportation process more effective.
“Bottom line is that there's nothing the governor indicated he'd like to see that I have a philosophical objection to,” Obama said.
Perry, in a statement released after their meeting, made no mention of having any areas of agreement with the president.
“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,” he said.
While much of the criticism of Obama has come from Republicans, even some members of Obama's own party were starting to make the case that Obama would be well-advised to visit the border and see the situation for himself.
“Going out there and talking to people who live this day in and day out — that's the perspective that's missing,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
Emerging from the highly anticipated meeting with Perry, Obama said he was open to suggestions from the governor and others that he dispatch National Guard troops to the border, but he warned such a solution would only work temporarily. He said Republicans appealing for him to embrace their ideas for addressing the crisis should grant his request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds so the government can put those ideas into action.
“The problem here is not major disagreement,” Obama said in Dallas. “If they're interested in solving the problem, then this can be solved. If the preference is for politics, then it won't be solved.”
But on Capitol Hill, Republican opposition hardened to his $3.7 billion request, leaving any solution unclear. At the same time, the political pressures on the president appeared to grow from all sides, as Republicans denounced him on the Senate floor.
Obama said Perry had requested a repositioning of border patrol agents and policy changes to make it easier to deport children from Central American countries found to have no legal basis for entering the country.
He said he was “happy to consider” the National Guard request, arguing that many of the other ideas he's hearing from Republicans are included in the emergency request he so direly wants Congress to approve. He called on Perry to help persuade fellow Republicans to go along.
“The only question at this point is why wouldn't the Texas delegation, or any of the other Republicans who are concerned about this, not want to put this on the fast track?” Obama said.
Yet Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has supported Obama's stalled quest to remake the nation's immigration laws, said earlier he could not support the president's spending request.
“I cannot vote for a provision which will then just perpetuate an unacceptable humanitarian crisis that's taking place on our southern border,” McCain said on the Senate floor, where he was joined by fellow Arizonan Jeff Flake and Texas Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. They took turns blaming Obama's policies for causing the border situation, contending that his efforts to relax some deportations have contributed to rumors circulating in Central America that once here, migrant kids will be allowed to stay.
“Amnesty is unfolding before our very eyes,” Cruz said.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner was noncommittal about bringing the spending measure to a vote.
“If we don't secure the border, nothing's going to change. And if you look at the president's request, it's all more about continuing to deal with the problem,” Boehner said.
Meanwhile, immigration advocacy groups attacked the spending request from the left, saying it was overly focused on enforcement. A group of civil liberty organizations filed a lawsuit in Seattle against the administration, arguing that the federal government is failing to provide the minors with legal representation.
The head of Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, told senators in Washington that the number of unaccompanied minors 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. They're coming mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, often fleeing gang violence.
The situation, Kerlikowske said, “is difficult and distressing on a lot of levels.”
“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, said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate as he testified alongside Kerlikowske before the Senate Homeland Security panel.
“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.”