WASHINGTON – Pressing for action on Friday, President Barack Obama urged Central American presidents and congressional Republicans at home to help ease the influx of minors and migrant families crossing the southwest border of the U.S.
While citing progress in addressing the flow, he called on House Republicans to act on his request for emergency spending. With one week left before Congress' August recess, Republicans were trying to unite behind a plan that would spend about one-fourth of what Obama requested.
"It is my hope that Speaker Boehner and House Republicans will not leave town for the month of August for their vacations without doing something to help solve this problem," Obama said. "We need action and less talk"
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met at the White House with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Obama said the U.S. and the other presidents' countries all have to deter the flow of children across the border because the young people are putting themselves and their families at risk.
But he also thanked the presidents for their efforts so far.
"Initial reports show that our joint efforts appear to be paying off," Obama said.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said Obama asked for two approaches — that the region work with the U.S. to resolve the immediate crisis and also that it develop a medium- and long-term plan to prevent such a flight of migrants in the future.
He said Obama also asked that their countries be prepared to receive and repatriate migrants who are returned from the U.S. border.
Obama's demand for congressional action came as GOP lawmakers said they were attempting to coalesce behind a narrow package of changes including sending National Guard troops to the border, increasing the number of U.S. immigration judges and changing a law so that migrant youths arriving by the tens of thousands could be sent home more quickly. The package would cost less than $1 billion, several lawmakers said, far less than the $3.7 billion Obama requested to deal with the crisis.
A number of Republicans exiting a special meeting on the issue in the Capitol said they had to act before leaving Washington late next week for their annual August recess.
"It would be a terrible message; leave town in August without having done anything, knowing that it's going to create even more of a crisis on the border," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. "Doing nothing in my view means that these children will be sent from the border back to communities like mine."
Yet some conservative lawmakers remained skeptical about taking any action. "The acceptable spending level is zero," said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.
And with Senate Democrats opposed to policy changes to return the children quickly without judicial hearings, it looked highly unlikely that a deal could be struck to send a bill to Obama's desk before August.
Friday's White House meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador came as the administration considered creating a pilot program giving refugee status to young people from Honduras. White House officials said the plan would involve screening youths in their home countries to determine whether they qualify for refugee status. The program would be limited and would start in Honduras but could be expanded to include other Central American countries.
Obama said determining whether an individual is eligible for refugee status or for asylum under humanitarian grounds is better done in their country so they don't attempt a dangerous trek to the U.S. border.
But, he added, the number who would get such clearance into the U.S. would be a fairly small number of people.
Earlier Friday, a senior Obama adviser said that the White House is taking seriously the possibility that House Republicans could initiate impeachment proceedings against Obama if he acts on his own later this year on a broader immigration measure that could defer deportations for immigrants who have been inside the United States illegally for years.
White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said that House Speaker John Boehner's effort to sue Obama over his use of executive authority "has opened the door for Republicans possibly considering impeachment at some point in the future."
"I would not discount that possibility," he said during a breakfast with reporters. "I think that when the president acts on immigration reform it will certainly up the likelihood that they would contemplate impeachment at some point."
Boehner has said he has ruled out impeachment, but conservative commentators, including former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, have called for Obama to be impeached.
"It is telling and sad that a senior White House official is focused on political games, rather than helping these kids and securing the border," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Several House Republicans said there was some discussion in Friday's meeting of holding a vote, in concert with action on the border, to overturn an earlier Obama directive on immigration that deferred deportation for certain immigrants brought here illegally as children.
With some critics contending that that Obama directive and other presidential policies triggered the crisis, the president has been eager to demonstrate an aggressive approach to reducing the flow of immigrants and returning those found not to have a legitimate claim to stay here. The U.S. has mounted a communications campaign to inform Central American residents that they won't be allowed to stay in the U.S., and Obama sent a team to Texas this week to weigh the possibility of dispatching the National Guard to the border.
Pfeiffer said Obama supports changes in the 2008 law that would give the administration more authority to turn back Central American migrants at the border. But he said current proposals in Congress, including a bipartisan plan proposed by Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, do not meet White House standards of deterring illegal migration while protecting legitimate claims for asylum from border crossers.