For President Barack Obama, the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is increasingly becoming a political liability, giving Republicans a fresh opportunity to question his administration’s competence and complicating the debate over the nation’s fractured immigration laws.
Still, Obama is resisting calls to visit the border during his two-day fundraising trip to Texas, where he arrives late Wednesday afternoon. Instead, Obama will hold a meeting hundreds of miles away in Dallas to discuss the crisis with faith leaders and Texas officials, including Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
Obama’s trip comes one day after he asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to get more resources to the border.
The roundtable discussion in Dallas is seen by the White House as a way to address the immigration issue while avoiding awkward optics at the border. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have arrived there in recent months, many fleeing violence in Central America, but also drawn by rumors that they can stay in the U.S. White House officials say most are unlikely to qualify for humanitarian relief and will be sent back to their home countries.
Obama’s decision to skip a border visit is likely to provide more fodder for the Republicans and the handful of Democrats who say the president hasn’t responded quickly and forcefully enough to the mounting crisis.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, raised the prospect that Obama’s failure to take a firsthand look at the border crisis could be akin to former President George W. Bush viewing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina from the air instead of on the ground.
“I’m sure that President Bush thought the same thing, that he could just look at everything from up in the sky, and then he owned it after a long time,” Cuellar said on Fox News. “So I hope this doesn’t become the Katrina moment for President Obama, saying that he doesn’t need to come to the border. He should come down.”
Perry, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016, has been scathing in his criticism of Obama, saying the White House has failed to respond to his repeated warnings about a flood of minors at the border.
“I have to believe that when you do not respond in any way, that you are either inept, or you have some ulterior motive of which you are functioning from,” Perry said Sunday.
The president was traveling to Texas from Denver, where he also raised money for Democratic candidates.
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House wasn’t worried about the optics of the president traveling to Texas without visiting the border. Officials also pointed to Obama’s request to Congress on Tuesday for additional resources at the border as a sign of the president’s engagement in the crisis.
If approved by Congress, the funding would go to increase detention, care and transportation of unaccompanied children, help speed the removal of adults with children by increasing the capacity of immigration courts, and increase prosecution of smuggling networks. The money also would help increase surveillance at the border and help Central American countries repatriate border-crossers sent back from the United States.
Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill seemed open to the emergency spending request. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would act on it this month.
But Republicans criticized Obama for pulling back on plans to pursue legal changes that would allow the administration to send the minors back to Central America more quickly. The proposals had infuriated immigrant advocates, who say the changes could result in harsh treatment of kids and eliminate their legal protections.
“He just decided not to do that because of the pushback he got from some in his own political base,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “We need to solve the problem, but you don’t need to just ignore the cause of the current crisis. And that requires more than just appropriating $3.7 billion for additional judges and the like.”
The border crisis has added a new wrinkle to the stalled immigration debate in Washington. With no sign that House Republicans planned to move forward on a comprehensive overhaul bill passed by the Senate last year, Obama announced that he would seek to address the matter through executive actions.
Republicans say it’s that same approach that has led to the current crisis. The GOP argues that Obama’s 2012 decision to allow some young people brought to the U.S. illegally to stay in the country has fueled the rumors in Central America that all of the minors crossing the border can stay.
But Democrats argue that the GOP is simply trying to shift attention away from the party’s inability to act on a politically potent issue for Hispanics, a key voting bloc Republicans have failed to attract in the past two presidential elections.
“The Republicans don’t have any credibility on this issue,” said Jim Manley, a former top adviser to Reid, the Senate majority leader. “This is coming from the same crowd that refused to vote on the bipartisan bill. This is the same group that failed to act.”
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