Obama, Perry meet in Texas amid 'urgent humanitarian situation'
CNN — President Barack Obama arrived Wednesday in Texas to discuss the immigration surge there, but he had no plans to visit the border area at the epicenter of what his administration labels an urgent humanitarian problem.
The trip to the Lone Star State includes Democratic Party fundraising events, and after some political squabbling, a meeting with Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who greeted Obama at the airport in Fort Worth after originally declining such an encounter.
They shook hands and then boarded Obama's helicopter for Dallas, where they were to meet with local leaders on options for responding to the influx of young immigrants illegally entering the country.
Obama planned to make a statement after the talks, the White House said.
Such discussions aren't enough for GOP critics or even some of Obama's fellow Democrats.
"This is a real crisis and the President needs to treat it as such and I think traveling from Dallas to the border is a 500-mile trip," Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told CNN on Wednesday. "That's not far to go on Air Force One."
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 Ninth 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." They announced the President is asking Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to better respond to it.
Cecilia Munoz, who is director of Obama's Domestic Policy Council, told CNN that the meeting with Perry and local leaders will focus on the immigrant issue, and that "the whole federal government is all over the situation."
Before traveling to Texas, Obama repeated his complaint of House Republican inaction on Senate-passed immigration reform, telling a Denver fundraiser that Congress "just said 'no' to fixing our broken immigration system in a way that strengthens our borders and our businesses."
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 minors without parents will cross the border this year.
Officials dealing with the problem told a Senate committee hearing Wednesday that the challenges are complex and will continue, stressing that immigration and detention laws dictate the response.
They urged senators to approve Obama's request for emergency money to help them cope with the surge that doubles last year's influx.
"We have very ,very small children who early in this process were spending far too long in a detention facility," said Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which added the extra money would "ensure these children are properly cared for while they are in our custody."
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin responded that the government should be working to prevent the children from coming in the first place.
He argued that immediately flying them back to their home countries would cost less and signal U.S. intolerance for those who enter the country illegally.
Other Republicans complained of legislators being prevented from talking to those in custody or customs and border patrol workers at holding centers and demanded that members of Congress get full access.
Obama administration officials blame the influx on dire conditions in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that cause people to send their children on dangerous journeys to the United States with smugglers who falsely promise they won't be deported.
Critics, however, say the administration invited the problem by halting deportations of some young immigrants who arrived illegally in past years.
Now, human smugglers tell people desperate for their children to escape tough conditions that the United States won't send them back, according to Cornyn and others.
They say the immigrants face threats, including assault, rape and other hardships, on the journey through Mexico to the border.
"The vulnerability that the cartels and other criminal organizations have figured out, because they're making big money off of transporting these kids up through Mexico from Central America, is the lack of detention pending a court hearing," Cornyn said. "What's happened is these children are placed with family members in the United States, and given a notice to appear for a later court hearing. Some have called this a notice to disappear, not a notice to appear," as most don't show up.
While Obama won't go to the border, his agenda includes a meeting with faith leaders and local officials offering to help deal with the influx.
The White House invited Perry to attend after he called for a meeting to discuss immigration. He initially refused to greet Obama at the airport, but later changed his mind.
Perry, who is seeking to reestablish his national credentials after a disastrous bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, said Tuesday he looked forward to meeting with the President.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas said Obama should go to the border area.
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 crack 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.
The request also includes $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide care for unaccompanied children crossing the border.
Government officials said that money would allow the United States 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. U.S. officials told CNN's Barbara Starr the requests cover about 5,000 new beds at military facilities. There is space for about 3,600 children, and the current arrangement is to use military facilities for up to 120 days.
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 former President George W. Bush that requires deportation hearings before sending back children from countries that do not border the United States.
"I don't think we can solve the problem unless we revisit" the law, Cornyn said.
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.
By Tom Cohen
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