WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is facing mounting calls from Republicans to take a firsthand look at the immigration emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, putting him on the spot concerning what he has called the "humanitarian crisis" of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children flooding in from Central America.
"If he doesn't come to the border, I think it's a real reflection of his lack of concern of what's really going on there," declared Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016.
The White House said Thursday that Obama currently has no plans to visit the border when he travels to Texas next week, primarily to fundraise for Democratic congressional candidates. A trip to the border could result in awkward optics for the president, who would be unlikely to meet with youngsters he's seeking to deport and would risk upsetting immigration advocates who oppose the deportations if he were to meet with border patrol agents or other law enforcement.
Administration officials say that Perry and other Republicans are merely trying to score political points rather than working to resolve a major problem. But the political concerns aren't so easily dismissed for Obama.
The border crisis has put him in the difficult position of asking Congress for more money and authority to send the children back home at the same time he's seeking ways to allow millions of other people already in the U.S. illegally to stay.
The White House also wants to keep the focus of the debate in this midterm election year on Republican lawmakers whom the president has accused of blocking progress on a comprehensive overhaul of America's immigration laws. Obama announced this week that, due to a lack of progress on Capitol Hill, he was moving forward to seek out ways to adjust U.S. immigration policy without congressional approval.
Obama's options for that range from relatively modest changes in deportation procedures to broader moves that could shield millions of people in the U.S. illegally from deportation while giving them temporary authorization to work here.
Immigration advocates emerged from a meeting with Obama this week convinced that the president was at least considering the more aggressive approach.
"He's totally flipped from doing everything possible to give Republicans the space to get to 'yes' to doing everything possible to cement the reputation of the GOP as anti-immigrant and to bolster the Democratic Party's image as the party that's for them," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a leading advocacy group.
The advocates are pushing Obama to provide work permits to the up to 9 million people who would have been eligible for citizenship under a comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate a year ago that stalled in the GOP-led House. Short of that, advocates want Obama to extend a "deferred action" program to all immigrants in the U.S. illegally who have children who are American citizens because they were born in the U.S. That program currently allows many young immigrants who arrived in the United States as children before June 15, 2007, to apply for work permits and two-year reprieves from deportation.
Those proposals stand in stark contrast to the Obama administration's response to the influx of unaccompanied minors showing up at the border. The president has asked Congress for $2 billion in emergency spending to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities. He's also seeking the flexibility to speed up the youths' deportations.
Republicans have sought to draw a link between the current crisis and Obama's desire to use executive powers to change immigration laws. They point specifically to his 2012 deferred-action decision, saying it has left the impression in Central America that youngsters arriving in the U.S. alone would be allowed to stay.
"This is a disaster of President Barack Obama's own making," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Goodlatte spoke to reporters Thursday from Texas where he was finishing a trip to the border. He urged Obama to make his own visit next week.
Obama's advisers challenged the motivations of those calling for the president to add a stop at the border to an itinerary that currently has him visiting Dallas and Austin.
"The reason that some people are suggesting the president should go to border when he's in Texas is because they'd rather play politics than actually trying to address some of these challenges," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Earnest noted that senior administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, have made trips to the border in recent weeks. Vice President Joe Biden also traveled to Guatemala last month as part of the White House's efforts to discourage adults from sending their children to the U.S. and to dispel the notion that they would be guaranteed entry.
Most of the 50,000 unaccompanied minors that have been caught at the border are arriving from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.