There's an urgent problem, but not much consensus on what to do
President Obama visits Texas, but not the border area of the immigrant surge
Republicans want more National Guard troops; Obama says they won't help
Various proposals emerge, including Obama's $3.7 billion funding request
More money. More National Guard troops at the border. More children deported.
A slew of possible solutions for the immigration crisis at the southern border emerged this week as President Barack Obama visited Texas.
Despite the plentiful demands and proposals, a clear path forward for Obama and Congress remained uncertain in the hyper-partisan environment of an election year.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children from Central America who illegally entered the United States in recent months still wait in an overwhelmed immigration system, some in overcrowded holding facilities in the Lone Star State and elsewhere.
The White House calls it an “urgent” humanitarian issue involving kids fleeing dire conditions in their home countries, while Republicans complain Obama invited it by halting deportations of some minors to create incentive for more to come.
Now, they say, he wants to exploit it to push for immigration reforms they oppose.
Here are five questions about what happens now:
1) What did Obama’s meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry accomplish?
A shared helicopter ride rarely garnered so much attention.
Obama and Perry, who hopes to burnish his national image after a disastrous bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, talked on the chopper from Fort Worth to Dallas on Wednesday. The President was in Texas for fund-raising events and talks with local figures on the immigration problem.
Afterward, both sides called the meeting respectful and noted some common ground. But Perry also urged Obama to send 1,000 more National Guard troops to the border area and take other steps to boost security.
In the end, a meeting that almost didn’t happen amounted to a public display of engagement with little impact.
Perry initially rejected an airport greeting with Obama, saying he wanted substantive talks. He relented when the President invited him to the meeting with local officials and others as well as the helicopter ride to get there.
2) Will more National Guard troops help?
The Obama administration points to previous increases in border security resources, and as the President noted after meeting with Perry, the flood of unaccompanied minors crossing the border – 57,000 in the past nine months – has little to do with evasion.
In fact, the youngsters seek out the border patrol to get into U.S. custody, believing it means a high likelihood they’ll end up living with relatives or family friends in America.
However, tougher border security has been a Republican immigration demand for years, and the current problem gives them another chance to appeal to their conservative base by demanding the deployment of more forces.
3) What about the $3.7 billion in emergency money Obama seeks?
The funding request announced Tuesday would bolster a range of federal efforts to deal with the immigration influx.
It seeks $1.6 billion to strengthen customs and border efforts as well as crack down on smugglers bringing the youngsters from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador across Mexico to the United States.
Another $300 million would go to help those countries counter claims by the smugglers to desperate parents that U.S. officials won’t send their children back.
“While we intend to do the right thing by these children, their parents need to know that this is an incredibly dangerous situation and it is unlikely that their children will be able to stay,” Obama said Wednesday.
The request also includes $1.8 billion to provide care for the unaccompanied children while in U.S. custody.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told a Senate committee on Thursday the requested extra money anticipated having to deal with up to 90,000 of the child immigrants this fiscal year, and another 145,000 in fiscal year 2015.
In total, it costs just over 10% of the $30 billion in proposed border security funding included in the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate but stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
Obama again criticized House GOP leaders for refusing to bring up the immigration legislation and he called for speedy approval of his emergency funding request.
“Are folks more interested in politics, or are they more interested in solving the problem?” he said.
House Republicans made clear they would take their time scrutinizing it.
House Speaker John Boehner, who also calls for more National Guard troops at the border, created a Republican working group to examine Obama’s emergency funding request and report back on Tuesday.
“If you look at the President’s request, it’s all more about continuing to deal with the problem. We’ve got to do something about sealing the border and ending this problem so that we can begin to move onto the bigger questions of immigration reform,” Boehner said.
While unclear how much of Obama’s proposal would survive in Congress, Boehner said he wanted the House to take some action on immigration before it leaves for a month-long recess in August.
4) What about the 2008 law that requires deportation hearings for these kids?
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, signed by GOP President George W. Bush in the final month of his administration, distinguishes between undocumented minors from bordering countries – Mexico and Canada – and those from others that aren’t contiguous.
In essence, the difference involves turning back children who lack valid immigration status at the border because they would still be in their home country, versus holding a deportation hearing for those from non-bordering countries.
Republicans and some Democrats say such due process now clogs up the system when Central American minors are arriving at double the rate of the previous year.
Conservative GOP Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, both of Texas, planned to introduce a proposal Thursday they say would make it easier to send back many of the child immigrants while ensuring that those with legitimate refugee or migration claims get a hearing.
Most Democrats, including leaders in the House and Senate, oppose such a change and instead call for more judges and other immigration resources to speed up the processing under existing law.
5) What’s this talk about enhanced powers for the homeland security secretary?
Rather than change the law, Obama and Democrats seek to give Johnson, the homeland security secretary, more authority to speed up deportations once a judge orders the removal of an undocumented minor.
Johnson told a Senate committee hearing Thursday the enhanced authority would allow for voluntary removals of children from Central American countries, similar to the choice available to undocumented minors from neighboring Mexico.
Democrats prefer this approach over the changes sought by Republicans in the 2008 law. At Thursday’s hearing, veteran Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont said they would fight any effort to revise the safeguards for due process in the existing law.
Republicans, however, questioned how the current backlog of cases awaiting resolution can be reduced without removing some of the due process requirements in the law.
6) Can anything get done with the House up for re-election?
With Congress already in a state of virtual dysfunction, the chances for significant immigration legislation this year appear minimal.
However, the immigrant influx gives both parties new fodder to make their arguments to their respective bases.
In addition, moderate Republicans concerned over their party getting blamed for inaction want to see something happen so they can show some results to the important Hispanic-American demographic – the nation’s largest minority.
That’s why Boehner wants to get even a minor immigration measure passed this month, before House Republicans go home to face constituents in the campaign for the November election.
For Obama and Democrats, the debate lets them continue hammering Republicans for blocking the Senate immigration reform plan that includes a path to legal status for millions of people who came to America illegally.
Conservatives shaping the Republican agenda consider the Senate measure an amnesty for lawbreakers, while Democrats say it provides a fair opportunity for undocumented immigrants to formally join the system they already embraced.
In the end, the fight is about who gets credit for reforms that all agree are necessary, even if they don’t agree on exactly how to proceed.
Boehner expressed his frustration with the gridlock over immigration on Thursday, telling reporters that Obama’s lack of leadership caused the influx of child immigrants.
“He’s been president for five-and-a-half years,” Boehner thundered. “When’s he going to take responsibility for something?”
7) Will he or won’t he?
For now, the bigger question is whether Obama will travel to the Texas border region at the epicenter of the immigration influx.
He didn’t do so this week while in the state, prompting criticism from Perry and other Republicans.
“The American people expect to see their President when there is a disaster,” Perry told CNN’s Kate Bolduan in an interview that aired Thursday, citing Obama’s trip to the East Coast to tour damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “He showed up at Sandy. Why not Texas?”
Obama, however, said Wednesday that visiting facilities where the children are processed and detained would be little more than a photo opportunity.
“There’s nothing that is taking place down there that I am not intimately aware of and briefed on. This isn’t theater. This is a problem,” the President said.
Cuellar, the Democratic congressman from Texas, responded that Obama needed to witness what the children endured. He told CNN’s “New Day” of an 11-year-old boy from Guatemala who died of dehydration after crossing the U.S. border.
“That is the face that I want him to see,” Cuellar said. “Don’t take any cameras, Mr. President, but go down there and see what we’re facing.”
CNN’s Paul Courson, Deirdre Walsh, Ed Payne, Dana Ford and Ted Barrett contributed to this report