President Obama is asking for help from Congress to control the flood of young immigrants who are being caught trying to cross the nation's southwest border.
The president sent a letter Monday to leaders of Congress to ensure that his administration has the "legal authorities" to fast-track deportations along the border and to increase penalties for people caught smuggling children into the country. As the Department of Justice redirects more immigration judges to the border and the Department of Health and Human Services identifies places around the country to house the undocumented immigrants, Obama also said he would need financial assistance from Congress, expected to be more than $2 billion.
"This surge of resources will mean that cases are processed fairly and as quickly as possible, ensuring the protection of asylum seekers and refugees while enabling the prompt removal of individuals who do not qualify for asylum or other forms of relief from removal," Obama wrote.
Congressional leaders said they need to hear more about the president's plan before making any decisions.
"We appreciate the update from the White House, but there are too few details – at this point – to determine whether their proposal would be effective," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We await the actual request."
The administration has been racing the past few weeks to get a handle on a surge of children caught trying to cross the border entering without their parents or legal guardians. He ordered the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the response from various government agencies to the crisis, created a program to try to entice more lawyers to represent children in immigration court and ordered a "surge" of immigration judges and U.S. attorneys to speed up deportations of those being caught.
Vice President Biden met with leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the countries where most of the children are coming from — to discuss ways to stop them from leaving those countries. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with those leaders and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson will travel to Guatemala next week to continue those conversations, according to Obama's letter.
The administration has been responding to a surge that has exploded in recent years. In 2011, fewer than 4,000 children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were caught crossing the border. That has grown to more than 40,000 caught so far this fiscal year.
In his letter, Obama said federal agencies need the additional funding from Congress to help federal officers employ an "aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border-crossers." He also wants to enhance "domestic enforcement," meaning those caught in the interior of the country. And in the meantime, Obama wrote, the government needs to ensure that officials "appropriately detain, process, and care for children and adults."
Congress is on recess this week before resuming work in Washington next week.
Some House Republicans were not impressed with Obama's letter, saying the president is asking for a "blank check" to fix an immigration enforcement system that he destroyed.
"President Obama created this disaster at our southern border and now he is asking American taxpayers to foot the bill," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who will hold a field hearing of the House Judiciary Committee that he chairs in McAllen, Texas, this week to see the issue firsthand. "A better solution to stop the flood of illegal entrants is for President Obama to halt his abuses of prosecutorial discretion, actually enforce our immigration laws within the interior of the United States, and start to crack down on fraudulent asylum claims – all of which he has the authority to do now."