WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is preparing to ask Congress for emergency spending of more than $2 billion to deal with the crisis of unaccompanied kids at the Southern border, but for now he won't seek legal changes to send the children back home more quickly.
That decision comes after immigration advocates objected strongly to administration proposals to speed thousands of unaccompanied minors back home to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where many face gang violence.
The White House insists the kids must be returned. Administration officials say they are still working on ways to do it faster, but say that the request for specific legislative changes will move on a separate track than the emergency spending request Obama is sending to Congress on Tuesday.
Decoupling the spending request from the contentious policy changes, which faced pushback from Obama's own political party, may give the emergency money a better chance of getting through Congress.
The decision to submit the spending request apart from the policy changes was confirmed Monday by two Capitol Hill aides who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plan by name ahead of the formal announcement.
An administration official said the White House has already advised the congressional leadership that it wants expanded authority and said it is still seeking those policy changes. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the request before it is announced, said the administration always intended to send the request for money separately.
The developments underscore the delicate position the administration finds itself in as it risks alienating allies by pursuing changes to turn the migrant kids around more quickly. More than 50,000 have arrived since October, in many cases fleeing violence at home, but also drawn by rumors that they can stay in the U.S.
Congressional Republicans blame Obama policies for the confusion; Obama administration officials dispute that.
The money Obama is seeking would be for immigration judges, detention facilities, legal aid and other items that could address the situation on the border, which the administration has termed a humanitarian crisis.
As lawmakers return to Washington this week from a weeklong July 4th recess, Obama's spending request is set to be a focus, with the Senate Appropriations Committee scheduling a hearing to examine it. It's not yet clear how lawmakers will react to the request, although aides seem optimistic it will get through the Democratic-controlled Senate in the coming weeks.
The issue has become a political problem for Obama that looks likely to follow him this week to Texas, where he is traveling primarily to raise money for congressional Democrats. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated Monday that Obama had no plans to visit the border, but Obama faced renewed criticism from Republicans over that decision.
"President Obama needs a wakeup call — and visiting the border and seeing firsthand the severity of this ongoing crisis is that wakeup call," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in remarks prepared for delivery on the Senate floor.
The developments all come as Obama has declared comprehensive immigration legislation dead in Congress and announced plans to proceed on his own by executive action to make whatever fixes he can to the nation's dysfunctional immigration system. That could put Obama in the seemingly contradictory position of shielding millions of people from deportation while at the same time trying to hurry deportations for the unaccompanied children.
The White House told Congress last week that it would seek "additional authority" for the Homeland Security secretary to quickly return the minors back home. Immigration advocates understood this to mean that the children, who currently have the right to a hearing before an immigration judge, would lose that right and instead would have to make it through an initial screening with a Border Patrol agent.
The immigrant advocacy community responded angrily, with more than 200 groups signing onto a letter last week calling on Obama to reconsider the changes.
"It would take away their right to council, right to proper screening. ... It would undermine completely due process," Leslie Holman, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said in an interview Monday.
The White House says the plan is to speed up the processing of Central American border crossers without taking away their due process.
"The president believes it's important for those due process rights to be respected; at the same time we should have a process that is efficient and that reflects the state of U.S. law," Earnest said Monday.
Now the White House and the Homeland Security Department will spend more time developing the proposals, along with plans to increase penalties on smugglers.