By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House officials expressed growing alarm on Thursday that Congress may not soon approve President Barack Obama’s emergency request for $3.7 billion to tackle the child migration crisis on the southern border of the United States.
The stalemate over the request comes as Obama prepares on Friday to host the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the countries that have been the source of much of the migrant surge that has strained border resources.
Congress is locked in a largely partisan fight over the money that Obama says is needed to provide humanitarian needs of the children and speed deportations for many after they get a hearing from immigration authorities.
Republicans want Congress to amend a 2008 anti-trafficking law to accelerate deportations, but Democrats are opposed out of concern the children would face the same conditions of crime and poverty when returned home. Senate Democrats have proposed cutting Obama’s $3.7 billion request, while Republicans have said $1.5 billion is the most they would want to spend.
Congress is preparing to start a five-week break at the end of next week and there is no compromise in sight.
“The notion that Congress would go home for August recess without having addressed this question … would be pretty extraordinary,” a senior White House official told reporters.
While White House officials complain about Congress, they are making a case that the number of child migrants has begun to slow. Still, the surge of tens of thousands of children, many with their mothers, has turned into a political nightmare for Obama, who is considering a variety of steps.
One idea being weighed is a plan to screen thousands of youths in Honduras to see if they can qualify as refugees or on an emergency humanitarian basis without having to make the perilous journey to the United States.
The senior White House official said the plan was one of many under consideration but that it was “way premature” to say it was a serious proposal.
TO MEET WITH CENTRAL AMERICAN LEADERS
Obama’s meeting with the Central American leaders gives him the opportunity to urge them to seek ways to stem the flow of people from their countries. Honduran President Juan Hernandez said on Thursday that U.S. lawmakers’ inability to reach an agreement on immigration policy was at least partly to blame for the crisis.
Obama spoke by phone on Thursday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and “discussed the possibility of regional programs that would pool resources to improve public security and increase economic opportunities in Central America,” the White House said in a statement.
U.S. officials blame human smugglers for misinformation by telling parents their children will be given safe haven in the United States if they send them there.
A senior White House official said Obama would seek the leaders’ help in countering that message with one that the children more than likely will be sent back home.
Part of the emergency funding request, about $300 million, would be allocated toward helping the countries create more favorable conditions at home so people are not tempted to leave.
But there has been little apparent progress in Congress toward a border funding bill that Democrats and Republicans could agree upon.
“It’s time for the White House to get their act together. Do they want to change the ’08 law and address the real underlying problem here or don’t they,” House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Grant McCool, Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh)