US faces child migrant 'emergency'

President Barack Obama has asked Congress Tuesday for an emergency US$3.7 billion (NZ$4.2b) to contain the surge of illegal Central American immigrants, many of them unaccompanied children, crossing into the United States from Mexico.

The money would increase detainment and court capacity to speed decisions, while expanding law enforcement and prosecution of the criminal networks that smuggle people over the border. The administration also would improve the temporary housing and care for immigrants while their cases are judged.

The funds "would support a sustained border security surge," Obama wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner Tuesday.

The request was made as Obama prepared to leave Washington to help Democrats raise money for the midterm elections. Stops were planned for Denver, Dallas and Austin, with no visit to the US-Mexican border.

In Dallas Wednesday, Obama will meet with Texas Governor Rick Perry as part of a discussion with faith leaders and state and local officials on stemming the influx of migrants. Obama has no plans to visit the border region, while out raising campaign cash for the midterm elections.

"We're not worried about those optics," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday. "The president is very aware of the situation that exists on the southwest border." Earnest cited administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who have visited the border and facilities housing a rising number of detained children.

Perry, a potential Republican nominee for president in 2016, has sparred with Obama over Central American migrants entering the U.S. at the South Texas border.

"I don't believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United States is secure," Perry said July 6 on ABC's This Week. Lucy Nashed, a Perry spokeswoman, said in an email that the governor would meet with Obama Wednesday.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the US-Mexico border from October 1 through June 15, about double the total in a similar period a year earlier, US Customs and Border Protection reported. Most of the children are smuggled through Central America and Mexico, according to the White House.

The $3.7 billion request covers four areas: deterrence, enforcement, foreign assistance and capacity — paying for the detention, care and transportation of children already in the US. The supplemental appropriation request will include US$615 million (NZ$700m) for the Agriculture Department for wildfire suppression.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement today that Obama's plan doesn't do enough to seal the border.

"The speaker still supports deploying the National Guard to provide humanitarian support in the affected areas — which this proposal does not address," according to the statement.

Almost half of the US$3.7 billion for the immigration effort — US$1.8 billion (NZ$2b) — would go to the Department of Health and Human Services to provide care for unaccompanied children and refugees already here, a provision likely to draw controversy from congressional Republicans who say the president hasn't been aggressive enough about border security or deportations.

A White House fact sheet said that apprehension rates at the southwest US border are "near historic lows" even as apprehensions of unaccompanied minors has swelled.

The Department of Homeland Security would use US$1.1 billion (NZ$1.2b) of the total to increase detention space for children and adults that meets "legal and humanitarian standards" and to ensure "protection of asylum seekers and refugees while enabling the prompt removal of individuals who do not qualify for asylum" or other relief.

The supplemental request follows visits in recent weeks by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with leaders from countries where the child immigration trend is most acute — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

The fact sheet said the administration is committing resources to boost those countries' capacity to "receive and reintegrate returned individuals and address the underlying security and economic issues that cause migration".

Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said his panel will review the request and "make our own determination on how to appropriately and wisely use taxpayer resources".

"Plainly, the situation for many of these unaccompanied children is extremely dire, and the United States has both a security and a moral obligation to help," Rogers, a Republican, said in an emailed statement.

-The Washington Post