WASHINGTON — — President Barack Obama asked Congress on Tuesday for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the influx of children from Central America entering the country illegally, a first step in what the White House described as a broader effort to speed deportations.
The proposal — which includes $1.8 billion to provide shelter and medical care for children fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — is likely to set off a more expansive debate on Capitol Hill about immigration, which lawmakers had put on hold ahead of this year's midterm elections.
Obama's request is the most significant response the White House has made to what the administration describes as a humanitarian crisis unfolding on the southwest border. Some 52,000 children and teens have surrendered to or been caught by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents since October — double the number from the same period last year.
It also represents a challenge for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and will be tasked with shepherding the bill through the upper chamber. Mikulski scheduled a hearing on the request for Thursday.
"Without these emergency funds, children will continue to suffer," Mikulski said. "And Central American families will continue to fall victim to false promises from smugglers and organized crime."
Some Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the administration's decision not to formally seek the authority to streamline deportations to Central America. Immigration officials now are operating under a law signed by President George W. Bush that requires the government to extend additional protections to minors arriving from countries other than Mexico and Canada.
And any request for new spending is likely to meet with calls to offset the added expense with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
"I'm sure I can find some money. That's not the problem right now," said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. "The problem is the inaction of this administration, allowing these children to come here, flying them to our military bases and not doing anything to return them."
But Democrats and immigrant rights groups, who have pushed for a more comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, are likely to resist any effort to expedite deportations.
"The process, I don't think, is the problem," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "I don't think it needs to be changed."
The Obama administration wants Congress to approve $1.8 billion in additional spending for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide shelter, food and other services for the children. The proposal also includes money the White House said would be used to bolster border enforcement and devote more resources — including immigration judges — to help clear a massive backlog of deportation cases.
Federal officials considered and rejected several sites in Maryland as potential shelters for hundreds of children, including a 1.1 million-square-foot office building in Baltimore that was vacated this year by the Social Security Administration.
Amid mounting opposition, including from Mikulski and Sen. Ben Cardin, the administration dropped the idea.
Another Maryland lawmaker, Rep. Andy Harris, could also play a role in the process. Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress, was named to the House Appropriations Committee in 2013.
Approached in the Capitol on Tuesday, Harris declined to discuss the president's request for additional spending.
The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, said in a statement that "it is clear that additional funding will be needed to ensure the proper care of these unaccompanied children." But he did not say whether he thought the level the White House requested is appropriate.
Obama is set to travel to Texas on Wednesday to raise money for Democrats and to speak on the economy. But he is not scheduled to visit the border — a decision that drew criticism from Republicans and some Democrats.
The president is expected to meet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in Dallas to discuss the situation.
"The president is well aware of exactly what's happening on the border," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "And what we are focused on right now are not political statements that would be made with an appearance, but rather with specific concrete action, steps that can be taken to mitigate this problem."
The White House has said deporting the children is a priority, but it has not disclosed how many have been removed from the country so far.
In addition to the money for the Department of Homeland Security and for Health and Human Services, the request includes $300 million for the State Department to step up an advertising campaign in Central America intended to discourage parents from sending their children to the United States.
In addition to the $3.7 billion for the border situation, the White House also requested $615 million to fight wildfires in Western states.
Mikulski has worked with Republicans in the House to win approval for several high-profile spending bills despite the partisan rancor that has defined budget issues in Washington for years.
Among the first bills she oversaw as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee was an emergency request for Hurricane Sandy relief that was ultimately signed by the president.
Yet divisions in the Senate — driven in part by this year's midterm elections — have stalled annual appropriations measures to fund the government. And it is not clear whether the political environment will change enough to allow passage of the president's emergency request.
"This is a heartbreaking moral crisis for this country," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. "I hope we handle it in a way that we can look back with some pride."
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- Barack Obama
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