WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama is asking Congress for increased powers to send unaccompanied children from Central America back to their home countries from the U.S. border they tried to cross illegally, setting up a confrontation with immigration activists.
In a letter to congressional leaders Monday, Obama also is asking for increased penalties for persons who smuggle immigrants who are vulnerable, such as children. The request is part of a broader administration response to what the White House has called a "humanitarian crisis" on the border.
Obama is asking Congress for emergency money that would, among other things, help conduct "an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers."
Obama's letter to House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says the administration is confronting the influx with a coordinated response on both sides of the border.
"This includes fulfilling our legal and moral obligation to make sure we appropriately care for unaccompanied children who are apprehended, while taking aggressive steps to surge resources to our Southwest border to deter both adults and children from this dangerous journey, increase capacity for enforcement and removal proceedings, and quickly return unlawful migrants to their home countries," Obama wrote.
The Border Patrol in South Texas has been overwhelmed for several months by an influx of unaccompanied children and parents traveling 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. Obama is seeking authority to act more quickly.
The Border Patrol has apprehended more than 52,000 child immigrants traveling on their own since the start of the 2014 budget year in October.
Immigrant advocacy groups, already frustrated by Obama's lack of executive action to ease record levels of deportations, immediately pounced on the administration's decision.
"President Obama is asking Congress to change the law to enable the government to inflict expedited removal on unaccompanied children. That is simply unconscionable," said Leslie A. Holman, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association ."No matter what you call it, rapid deportations without any meaningful hearing for children who are rightly afraid of the violence and turmoil from which they fled is wrong, and contradicts the fundamental values of this nation."
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said the influx of children across the border "really requires a humanitarian response, not an increase in deportations."
Obama's attempt to speed up deportations of the Central American immigrants comes as immigration advocates have been pressing the administration to take steps to slow deportations in the face of congressional inaction on comprehensive immigration legislation.