President Barack Obama is holding off for now on seeking new legal authority to send unaccompanied migrant kids back home faster from the Southern border, following criticism that the administration's planned changes were too harsh.
Instead when Obama formally asks Congress for more than $2 billion in emergency spending Tuesday to deal with the border crisis, the request will not be accompanied by the specific legislative changes that the White House has indicated it plans to seek, according to two congressional aides. The aides spoke Monday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter by name ahead of the announcement.
White House officials said they still intend to pursue additional authorities to speed the return of the children who've been arriving by the thousands, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. But for now the White House request will focus on additional money for immigration judges, detention facilities, legal aid and other items that could address the situation on the border, which the administration has termed a humanitarian crisis.
An administration official said the White House has already advised the congressional leadership that it wants expanded authorities and said it is still seeking those policy changes. But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the request before it is announced, said the request for money would be sent separately.
Decoupling the spending request from the contentious policy changes, which faced pushback from members of Obama's own party, may give the emergency money a better chance of getting through Congress.
The approach comes after the White House told Congress last week that it would seek "additional authority" for the Homeland Security secretary to quickly return the minors back home. Immigration advocates understood this to mean that the children, who currently have the right to a hearing before an immigration judge, would lose that right and instead would have to make it through an initial screening with a Border Patrol agent.
The immigrant advocacy community responded angrily, with more than 200 groups signing onto a letter last week calling on Obama to reconsider the changes.
"It would take away their right to council, right to proper screening. ... It would undermine completely due process," Leslie Holman, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said in an interview Monday.
The White House says the plan is to speed up the processing of Central American border crossers without taking away their due process.
"The president believes it's important for those due process rights to be respected; at the same time we should have a process that is efficient and that reflects the state of U.S. law," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.
Now the White House will spend more time developing the proposals, along with plans to increase penalties on smugglers.
The developments underscore the delicate position the administration finds itself in as it risks alienating allies by pursuing changes to turn the migrant kids around more quickly. More than 50,000 have arrived since October, in many cases fleeing violence at home but also drawn by rumors that they can stay in the U.S.
Congressional Republicans blame Obama policies for the confusion; Obama administration officials dispute that.
The controversy looks set to dog Obama this week as he travels to Texas, primarily to raise money for Democratic congressional candidates. Earnest reiterated Monday that Obama had no plans to visit the border, but Obama faced renewed criticism from Republicans over that decision.
"President Obama needs a wakeup call — and visiting the border and seeing firsthand the severity of this ongoing crisis is that wakeup call," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in remarks prepared for delivery on the Senate floor.
Earnest said Monday that most of the youths arriving would not be able to stay ultimately.
"It's unlikely that most of these kids will qualify for humanitarian relief," Earnest said. "It means they will not have a legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned."
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