WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials defended their response to the immigration crisis on the Southwest border Wednesday and pledged to get control of the flood of unaccompanied children arriving from Central America.
“We believe we will stem this tide,” the officials said in a joint statement prepared for a Senate hearing.
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Winkowski appeared before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee a day after President Barack Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to deal with the crisis.
The officials were expected to face questions on the request, which is encountering some resistance from Republicans who believe more wholesale changes are needed. Democrats seem generally receptive to the spending, which would go for more immigration judges, detention facilities, and deterrence efforts, though some say it should focus more on helping the kids than on enforcement.
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 fractured immigration laws.
But the president has resisted calls to visit the border during his fundraising trip to Texas on Wednesday. Instead, Obama plans to meet in Dallas with faith leaders and Texas officials, including Republican Gov. Rick Perry. Obama’s decision to skip a border visit is likely to provide more fodder for the Republicans and the handful of Democrats who say the president hasn’t responded quickly and forcefully enough to the mounting crisis.
Perry, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016, has been scathing in his criticism of Obama, saying the White House has failed to respond to his repeated warnings about a flood of minors at the border. But Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House wasn’t worried about the optics 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.
The officials testifying at Wednesday’s congressional hearing didn’t address the spending request in prepared testimony but outlined steps the administration already is taking to get a handle on the crisis, from aiming to increase detention space to working with governments in the region.
The children are coming mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, many fleeing cartel violence but also hearing rumors, sometimes from smugglers, that once they arrive in the U.S. they would be allowed to stay. More than 50,000 have arrived already since fall, a number that’s expected to rise to 90,000 by the end of this fiscal year. Thousands of families also are coming.
The unexpected immigration spike is overwhelming immigration courts and holding facilities in the Southwest and turning into a major political crisis for the Obama administration.