WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama has requested US$3.7 billion in emergency funding from Congress to help cope with a surge of unaccompanied child immigrants from Central America.
Obama said the funds – a far higher sum than he signaled he would request late last month – would help ease an "urgent humanitarian situation" that has seen tens of thousands of minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras illegally cross the southern US border this year after a perilous overland journey across Mexico.
To stem the flow, the administration is looking to beef up border security with aerial surveillance, improve housing for the undocumented arrivals and speed up their deportations.
The appropriation would go to several US government agencies, funding an increase in the number of immigration judges, asylum officers and border agents; an expansion in court capacity; and the addition of detention facilities, the officials said.
Obama, in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, urged Congress to "act expeditiously" on his request.
The funds would expand the government's Alternatives to Detention programme through increased use of ankle bracelets, which would allow migrants to stay with relatives instead of in overcrowded, expensive detention facilities while their cases are being processed.
They would also provide Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson with "flexibility" that could enable US authorities to more quickly process and repatriate Central American migrants, a White House official said.
"We are taking an aggressive approach on both sides of the border," the official told reporters, referring to US efforts to coordinate with Mexican and Central American authorities to prevent migrants from taking the journey to the United States, often with dangerous human traffickers.
"We are taking steps to both protect due process but also to remove these migrants efficiently," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A first congressional hearing on the emergency request will occur on Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Johnson is scheduled to testify.
Johnson was in Guatemala on Tuesday to discuss efforts to reduce illegal immigration. There, President Otto Perez launched a new campaign aimed at putting the brakes on the flight of migrant children.
Obama travels to Texas on Wednesday. He will not visit the border region, but he will meet with Governor Rick Perry to discuss the crisis. Under the plan, DHS will receive $1.53 billion, including $116 million to pay for transporting migrants back to their home countries.
The Department of Health and Human Services will be allocated $1.8 billion, mostly to provide care for unaccompanied child migrants.
The State Department will receive $300 million to repatriate Central American migrants, address the underlying causes driving migration, and launch media campaigns emphasising that illegal immigrants will not be allowed to stay in the United States.
More than $60 million will be given to the Justice Department.
Tough sell in Congress
The plan is not a done deal, especially in a divided Congress. But White House officials said they were confident that the emergency request would be taken up in a "spirit of bipartisanship."
Budgetary savings are an obsession in Washington, but the White House said it would not offer savings to pay for Obama's proposal.
"With emergency requests like this, traditionally Congress has not sought to bog down that process in a search for offsets," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The hefty cost may be a sticking point, especially for Republicans loath to approve major spending projects in an election year.
"It's something we have to do," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in Congress, said of funding the request. "How we get there, I really don't know at this stage."
Republican House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte warned that Obama's request seems more "geared towards processing Central Americans than stopping the surge itself."
"It's clear that law enforcement officers at the border need more resources to deal with the border crisis but resources will only be useful if there are consequences for illegal immigration," he said.
Immigration has exploded into a flashpoint issue. Protesters in a small California town, home to a US Border Patrol facility for detained migrants, last week blocked three buses transporting migrant women and children.
According to the White House, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported some 233,000 people in fiscal year 2014, including 87,000 from Central American countries.
Since last October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied child migrants, two-thirds of them from Central America, have been apprehended crossing into the United States, US officials said. — AFP