He asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder for recommendations by the end of summer on the types of executive actions he could take. Among the steps he could consider would be to focus deportations on people with serious criminal records, something the administration has already tried to do, with mixed results.
For now, White House officials say he will refocus resources from the interior of the country to the border.
Dropping by a White House gathering of immigration advocates who were meeting with his senior advisers Monday, Obama promised he would take "aggressive" steps, according to some participants, but cautioned that he could not match on his own what broader legislation would accomplish.
At the same time, Obama asked Congress for more money and additional authority to make it easier to deport recent border crossers, including the unaccompanied youths from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities. Those proposals found little support in the White House meeting, signaling to Obama and his aides the difficulty he could face managing the labor, business, religious and Hispanic coalition behind the push for an immigration overhaul.
Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Panama on Tuesday where he asked Central American nations to work with the Obama administration to curb the influx of unaccompanied children. Meeting in Panama with the presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala and the foreign minister of Honduras, Kerry said the crisis has reached a "critical time" and urged immediate steps to address poverty and crime, thought to be underlying causes of the phenomenon.
"Tens of thousands of young children are being exploited and are being put at great danger and it is a challenge to each of us," Kerry said as he met the officials before they all attended the inauguration of Panama's new president. He called it a "very complicated issue" exacerbated by crime, violence and poverty but blamed criminal gangs and human traffickers for encouraging naïve families to send their children north.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this article from Panama City, Panama.
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