BROWNSVILLE, Texas - President Barack Obama will seek more than $2 billion to respond to the flood of immigrants illegally entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas and ask for new powers to deal with returning immigrant children apprehended while travelling without their parents, a White House official said.
With Obama looking to Congress for help with what he has called an "urgent humanitarian situation," House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi visited a Border Patrol facility in Texas that held unaccompanied children. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children, most from Central America, have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally since October.
"The fact is these are children — children and families," Pelosi said. "We have a moral responsibility to address this in a dignified way."
Obama plans to make the requests of Congress in a letter to be sent Monday, the White House official said. Details of the emergency appropriation, including the exact amount and how it will be spent, will come after lawmakers return from their holiday recess on July 7, said the official, who was not authorized to speak by name and discussed the requests on condition of anonymity.
Obama will also ask that the Department of Homeland Security be granted the authority to apply "fast track" procedures to the screening and deportation of all immigrant children travelling without their parents and that stricter penalties be applied to those who smuggle children across the border, the official said. Obama's requests were first reported by The New York Times.
Pelosi said she holds little hope that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform this year but that politics should be set aside.
She did not elaborate on what had dampened her optimism in this midterm election year. Speaker of the House John Boehner's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Border Patrol in south Texas has been overwhelmed for several months by an influx of unaccompanied children and parents travelling with young children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Unlike Mexican immigrants arrested after entering the U.S. illegally, those from Central America cannot be as easily returned to their countries.
The U.S. had only one family detention centre in Pennsylvania, so most adults travelling with young children were released and told to check in with the local immigration office when they arrived at their destination. A new facility for families is being prepared in New Mexico.
Children who travelled alone are handled differently. By law, they must be transferred to the custody of the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest. From there, they are sent into a network of shelters until they can be reunited with family members while awaiting their day in immigration court.
Republicans have criticized Obama's immigration policies, arguing they've left the impression that women and children from Central America will be allowed to stay in the United States. The administration has worked to send a clear message in recent weeks that new arrivals will be targeted for deportation. But immigrants arriving from those countries say they are fleeing pervasive gang violence and crushing poverty.
The situation is drawing attention and politicians from both political parties.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace in Washington and AP writer Will Weissert in Dallas contributed to this report.
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