(Adds senators’ response, more on Perry meeting)
By Steve Holland and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, July 8 (Reuters) - The U.S. administration sought on Tuesday to halt a cross-border surge of unaccompanied children from Central America, asking Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending and putting in place plans to quicken the youngsters’ deportation hearings.
It was President Barack Obama’s most substantive effort to gain control of a humanitarian crisis along the Texas border with Mexico and fend off Republican Party critics demanding a tougher response.
One of those critics, Texas Governor Rick Perry, was due to meet Obama in Dallas on Wednesday during a roundtable Obama has scheduled on the topic with faith leaders and local officials, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Whether the two meet privately one-on-one was yet to be determined, Earnest told reporters. On Sunday Perry accused the administration of moving too slowly and called for National Guard troops to be sent to the border.
Without government action, the administration projects more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 next year could be fleeing the rampant poverty and domestic- and gang-related violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors from the three countries have been caught trying to sneak over the border since October, double the number from the same period the year before.
The proposed actions will test Obama’s ability to negotiate effectively with Republican lawmakers who have blocked much of his agenda ahead of a November election when they hope to capture the U.S. Senate from Obama’s Democratic Party.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said he thought the Senate could pass the emergency funding bill this month, before the start of a long summer recess. But House and Senate Republican leaders could insist on offsetting any new funds with cuts in other budget items.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell would only say that Obama’s request needed a close look to “see if it’s an appropriate response to the crisis.”
The White House said the largest portion of the requested funding, $1.8 billion, would pay to care for the children while in U.S. custody. Other funds would go to beefing up border enforcement, hiring more immigration judges and paying for programs to discourage deported children from again trying to slip into the United States illegally.
Separately, a Justice Department official told Reuters the United States plans to give priority to child migrants over adults in deportation hearings. The new policy, to be announced on Wednesday, means immigration courts will now hear first from newly arrived children, while adult immigrants not in detention, including those who are seeking asylum, will have to wait longer, the official said.
Central America, a key transshipment point for drug smuggling between South America and the United States, has a long history of gang violence and the problem has mushroomed in recent years owing to turf wars fought by ruthless Mexican drug cartels. Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, according to a report released by the United Nations in April.
Besides seeking the additional funding, Obama has said he wants more tools to speed the children’s deportation. He has yet to submit a formal request for legislation expanding the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to expel the children while circumventing lengthy immigration court procedures.
In vowing to swiftly return the children to their home countries, Obama risks the wrath of Hispanic-American allies who look to him to act on his own to loosen, not strengthen, immigration rules.
Seeking to make the request more politically acceptable to lawmakers, the White House added $615 million in urgently needed money to fight summer wildfires raging in western states. This brought the total funding request to $4.315 billion. (Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Jon Herskovitz, Jeff Mason, David Lawder and Susan Heavey; Editing by Caren Bohan and Howard Goller)