WASHINGTON (AP) – With one week left before Congress' August recess, President Barack Obama is prodding Republicans to help ease the influx of minors and migrant families from Central America, but with chances dimming that border legislation will reach his desk before the break, he also is focusing on other ways to stem the flow.
GOP leaders are working against time to find a consensus within their party to deal with more than 57,000 children and other migrants who have arrived since October, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Obama's demand for congressional action comes as GOP lawmakers are attempting to coalesce behind a narrow package of changes, including sending National Guard troops to the border, increasing the number of U.S. immigration judges and changing a law so that migrant youths arriving by the tens of thousands could be sent home more quickly.
The package would cost less than $1 billion, several lawmakers said, far less than the $3.7 billion Obama requested to deal with the crisis.
Obama, who met this past week with presidents from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, said the U.S. has compassion for the migrant children, but those who do not have a proper claim to remain in the United States will be turned back. At the same time, the regional leaders said the president offered them assurances that the rights of those children would be observed.
"It is my hope that Speaker Boehner and House Republicans will not leave town for the month of August for their vacations without doing something to help solve this problem," Obama said Friday after meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and three presidents from Central America.
Obama played down a proposed pilot program that his administration is considering that would give refugee status to young people from Honduras. White House officials said the plan, which could be expanded to Guatemala and El Salvador, involves screening youths in their home countries to determine whether they qualify for refugee status.
Obama said such an effort would affect only a small number of asylum seekers.
"There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for," he said. "If that were the case it would be better for them to apply in-country rather than take a very dangerous journey up to Texas to make those same claims. But I think it's important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number of additional migrants."
Obama applauded efforts in Central America to conduct public awareness campaigns on the dangers of making a long trek to the U.S. border and to strengthen police efforts against smuggling operations. Separately, the Department of Homeland Security said it was boosting spending for law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley. The money would permit local police to support Customs and Border Protection by enhancing security in the region.
Conservatives also expressed concerns that anything the House passed could become a vehicle for the Senate to attach conditions House Republicans oppose, including the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship for millions.
House leaders and Senate Republicans have ruled that out, but conservative concerns were such that Speaker John Boehner told his conference it would not happen.
Several House Republicans said there has been some discussion of holding a vote, in concert with action on the border, to overturn an earlier Obama directive on immigration that deferred deportation for certain immigrants brought here illegally as children.
It's unlikely such legislation will reach Obama before the break. Senate Democrats oppose policy changes that would return migrant children to their countries without judicial hearings. House Republicans insist on those changes as a condition for approving any emergency money.
White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Obama supports policy changes that would give the administration more authority to turn back Central American migrants at the border. But he said current proposals in Congress, including a bipartisan plan proposed by Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, do not meet White House standards of deterring illegal migration while protecting legitimate claims for asylum from border crossers.