President Obama on Tuesday asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to stem the wave of Central American children and adults at the United States’ southern border.
The money, which is almost double the amount that was initially reported, will go toward funding more Border Patrol agents and drone flights, additional detention facilities and stepped up efforts to deport adults traveling with children, according to White House officials. The requested funding would also pay for more immigration judges, legal representation for migrants and court space, officials said.
Just under half the funds — $1.8 billion — would go to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to better care for unaccompanied children caught at the border. The rest would be divvied up between the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice.
Despite the higher than expected figure, a White House official, who requested to speak anonymously, said that the administration hopes that Congress passes the funding request with bipartisan support.
“Our hope and expectation is … that this will be treated like the urgent humanitarian situation that it is,” the official told reporters on a conference call.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote in an email that lawmakers would review the request before taking a position. Republicans have blamed Obama’s immigration policies for drawing migrants to the U.S.
Spokesman Michael Steel added that Boehner, “still supports deploying the National Guard to provide humanitarian support in the affected areas — which this proposal does not address.”
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said his panel would take "a close and a thorough look at this funding request."
"It is clear that additional funding will be needed to ensure the proper care of these unaccompanied children, to enforce the law, and to further secure our border so that these problems can be mitigated in the short term," he said in a statement.
The White House has faced pressure to swiftly address the influx of Central American migrants at the border from both political parties and immigration advocates on all sides of the debate.
Balancing those demands, however, has proven to be a difficult task.
Obama is temporarily putting off his request to change the law to allow faster deportations of Central American children. The proposal received support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, but many other Democrats and immigrant-rights advocates criticized the plan for being too severe.
Even though that policy change was not included in the emergency funding request, White House officials said they are still pursuing efforts to alter the law to give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to carry out expedited removals of Central American minors who do not qualify for asylum or refugee status.
“Our intention is to work with Congress to formulate that language and move it forward,” an official said. “We fully intend to honor the spirit of the original trafficking law … to make sure we are protecting their due process rights.”
Under existing law, unaccompanied children from nations like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras cannot be immediately turned back to their home countries, as can be done with children from countries that border the U.S., such as Mexico or Canada. Once children from Central America who are traveling without a parent or guardian are caught, they are transferred to HHS custody while they await a hearing in immigration court.
The current system is designed to protect children who face danger from human traffickers or gangs in their home countries. But it was not set up to handle the 52,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the U.S. since last October; detention facilities are overcrowded and immigration courts have seen bigger backlogs.
“The number of kids removed is not large enough, that’s why we’re seeking to make the process more efficient,” an official said.
Late last month, Obama penned a letter to congressional leaders asking for “additional authority to exercise discretion” to deport Central American children faster. But immigrant rights advocates expressed fear that children could be at the mercy of Border Patrol, and lose the ability to have a hearing before an asylum officer or immigration judge.
Changing the law would “roll back due process on some of the most vulnerable members of society,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said last week.
Putting off the change for now could allow the administration more time to iron out the details with Congress, and work on a bill to up penalties for human traffickers, while allowing the emergency funds to pass now.
In the meantime, the spending plan would allot $879 million to pay for more family detention facilities and to expand the use of electronic monitoring devices, such as ankle bracelets, for adults with children who are awaiting a removal hearing. The Border Patrol would receive $364 million for more agents and facility upgrades to handle children.
Obama is asking for $300 million to go to the State Department to help reintegrate deported migrants in their home countries and expand a media campaigns in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to warn potential migrants against crossing illegally into the U.S.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.