Republicans are challenging the president's characterization of the surge in young immigrants from Central America across the southern border as an unforeseen crisis, accusing his administration of contributing to the influx and demanding that he deploy National Guard troops and other resources to secure the border.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday called the flood of unaccompanied minors across the U.S.-Mexico border a "failure of diplomacy."
"I've known about this for two years. The president has known about this," Perry said during a briefing in Washington.
Since October, 47,000 children have been caught crossing the southern border alone, a more than 90% increase from last year, federal officials said. The number of unaccompanied children caught could reach 90,000 this year, with many crossing here in the Rio Grande Valley.
President Obama spoke by phone with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday to discuss a regional response to the situation.
According to a White House statement, Obama “noted that these unaccompanied children are vulnerable to crime and abuse.” He welcomed Mexico's efforts to help target the criminals that lure families into sending children north. He also noted that Mexico had warned migrants of the “likelihood that they will be returned to Central America.”
On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with Central American officials in Guatemala to try to stem the flow of migrants north, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is expected to visit Brownsville.
Critics say that's not enough.
Perry and other Texas officials this week authorized an increase in border security by the state's Department of Public Safety. The department will use existing resources, plus $1.3 million extra per week, to increase staffing and overtime along the border. It does not plan to erect any new checkpoints, department spokesman Tom Vinger said.
Critics note that young migrants are heading north not just to flee deteriorating economic and security conditions in Central America, but also lured by rumors that they will be granted permisos, permission to stay legally. They say these rumors originated with Obama's executive order creating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that allowed children who had immigrated illegally to delay deportation.
"We are essentially incentivizing the flow of this population by not returning the unaccompanied juveniles to their countries of origins quickly. Indeed, once they arrive in the United States, we try to find sponsors for them in this country, and they effectively stay here permanently," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said on the House floor this week.
Cole is also upset that, with shelter space in Texas scarce, migrant children are being flown to a temporary shelter opened last month at Oklahoma's Ft. Sill.
Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cornyn (R-Texas) also blamed Obama's policies for contributing to the border crisis and called on him to swiftly curtail it.
Cornyn had yet to receive a response Thursday from the chiefs of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to a list of questions he sent the day before concerning the influx of young immigrants.
Among the questions in his letters, which were co-written by Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley:
"Has the surge in illegal border crossers and the number of unaccompanied alien children apprehended by DHS diverted critical resources away from your department's border security and national security objectives? What is your department's plan to ensure that transnational criminal organizations do not exploit the vulnerabilities exposed by the crisis on our southern border?"
Aaron Peña, a lawyer who lives in the valley and served in the Texas state Legislature as both a Democrat and a Republican, said he had been disappointed by Obama's response to the border crisis.
"He just doesn't seem to care — it's not a priority to him," Peña said Thursday, adding that it seems the president "just wants to ignore it."
At a briefing Thursday in Washington, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) responded to such criticism, saying that the increase in unaccompanied children started long before the Senate passed immigration legislation last year and before Obama created DACA two years ago.
"None of the unaccompanied children crossing our border would be eligible for DACA," he said. "Why are they coming if it isn't the lure of these laws? They're fleeing for their lives."
He noted that the children weren't just fleeing to the United States but also seeking refuge in Mexico and other neighboring countries.
"These are kids who are coming here because of what's happening in their own country," Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) said. "I just hope that at some point, we'll be able to put these polarizing arguments aside and look at it from the basis of what the facts are and how we can realistically address this issue."
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the crisis was largely caused by thousands in Central America who believe "it is better to run for their lives and risk dying than to stay and die for certain."
Juan Sheenan, Catholic Relief Services' representative in Honduras, said the Obama administration and its critics needed to address the root causes of the migration, not just the crisis at the border.
"It is one thing for the U.S. to say do not migrate, but without anti-violence and anti-poverty assistance and really understanding the situation, it's like returning kids to a battlefield," he said. "A message of just stay home, without any willingness to address root causes, is a strategy that just won't work."
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Brownsville and Simon from Washington. Times staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times