WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked Congress on Tuesday for nearly $4 billion to address the immigration crisis caused by unaccompanied minors streaming across the nation’s southern border.
About half of the money requested is needed to care for children being housed temporarily in U.S. facilities, including some converted troop barracks at Fort Sill, the U.S. Army post in southwest Oklahoma, according to the White House.
Rep. Tom Cole, one of the first lawmakers to discover the plan for housing minors at military bases, said Tuesday that he’s willing to work with the administration on the root causes of the crisis, not just “managing the flow” of people across the border.
“I recognize that we have a real problem,” Cole, R-Moore, said in an interview. “What I have to know is that the administration has the will to solve it.”
Cole, whose district includes Fort Sill, is a key member of the House Appropriations Committee, which will handle the president’s funding request.
The number of unaccompanied minors — mostly from Central America — crossing the U.S. border has risen sharply in the past few years.
More than 50,000 unaccompanied minors have entered the U.S. since October, far more than the government could accommodate at existing shelters.
Many of the children are brought to the border by smuggling organizations.
The administration officially requested $3.7 billion, spread out across the federal agencies involved with the crisis.
The Health and Human Services Department would receive $1.8 billion to provide care for children in the government’s custody over the next few months.
The White House said the money would allow for “more stable, cost-effective arrangements” for the children.
The White House request also includes money for increased border surveillance; judges, prosecutors and other participants in the deportation process; international information programs; and other operational costs, including overtime pay for Border Patrol agents dealing with the influx.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she would hold a hearing Thursday on the president’s request.
“Without these emergency funds, children will continue to suffer, Customs and Border Patrol agents’ ability to meet their mission will be compromised, and Central American families will continue to fall victim to false promises from smugglers and organized crime,” Mikulski said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration also wants a 2008 law changed to give the Homeland Security secretary more discretion to deport children.
That once-obscure law has garnered significant attention in the past several weeks as Republican lawmakers and the administration looked to cast — or deflect — blame for the humanitarian crisis created by the minors.
Meant to address child trafficking, the law makes it more difficult to deport children from Central America than children from Mexico.
However, Cole and other Republicans have rejected the administration’s claims that the law and violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are causing the mass exodus.
Those countries have been violent for many years, and the law has been on the books for almost six years, Cole said, adding that Congress likely would repeal the law if it would help.
The surge of minors is “largely a phenomenon of the last two years when the president started playing around with the immigration laws” through executive orders, Cole said.
The problems received little media attention until last month, when the administration started housing minors at Fort Sill and at two other military bases in Texas and California.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, has been tangling with the Health and Human Services Department over access to the Fort Sill facility, which is caring for more than 1,000 children.
Cole said Thursday that the administration hasn’t been open enough about the situation from the very beginning.
His staff first heard rumors in Lawton that the post would be used to house minors and had trouble getting the administration to provide details.
The crisis is new and the administration is having to make up its policies as it goes along, he said.
Obama, in Texas to hold fundraisers, is scheduled to meet with Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday about the crisis, but he does not plan to go to the border, Earnest said.