WASHINGTON — Pressing for swift action, President Barack Obama on Friday urged Central American presidents and congressional Republicans to help ease the influx of minors and migrant families crossing the southwest border of the U.S.
He emphasized to the regional leaders that despite U.S. compassion for migrant children, those who do not have a proper claim to remain in the U.S. will be turned back.
While citing progress in stemming the flow, Obama called on House Republicans to act urgently on his request for emergency spending. With one week left before Congress' August recess, Republicans on Friday were trying to unite behind a plan that would spend about one-fourth of the amount in Obama's proposal.
"It is my hope that Speaker Boehner and House Republicans will not leave town for the month of August for their vacations without doing something to help solve this problem," Obama said after meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. "We need action and less talk."
Obama played down a proposed pilot program that his administration is considering that would give refugee status to young people from Honduras. White House officials said the plan, which could be expanded to Guatemala and El Salvador, would involve screening youths in their home countries to determine whether they qualify for refugee status.
Obama said such an effort would affect only a small number of asylum seekers.
"There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for," he said. If that were the case it would be better for them to apply in-country rather than take a very dangerous journey up to Texas to make those same claims. But I think it's important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number of additional migrants."
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said Obama urged the region to work with the U.S. to resolve the immediate crisis and also that it develop a medium- and long-term plan to prevent such a flight of migrants in the future.
"What he asked was that we be prepared to receive the children who are not classified to remain here," Molina said. "Ultimately we have a responsibility in our countries to be prepared to receive them and give them the attention and the processes they deserve."
Obama's demand for congressional action came as GOP lawmakers said they were attempting to coalesce behind a narrow package of changes including sending National Guard troops to the border, increasing the number of U.S. immigration judges and changing a law so that migrant youths arriving by the tens of thousands could be sent home more quickly. The package would cost less than $1 billion, several lawmakers said, far less than the $3.7 billion Obama requested to deal with the crisis.
A number of Republicans exiting a special meeting on the issue in the Capitol said they had to act before leaving Washington late next week for their annual August recess.
"It would be a terrible message; leave town in August without having done anything, knowing that it's going to create even more of a crisis on the border," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. "Doing nothing in my view means that these children will be sent from the border back to communities like mine."
House Democrats called on Republicans to act on the spending bill without contentious policy changes attached that would cost Democratic votes and imperil Senate support.
"We are at risk of leaving here without addressing this issue," said Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Conservatives also expressed concerns that anything the House passed could become a vehicle for the Senate to attach conditions House Republicans oppose, even including the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship for millions.
House leaders and Senate Republicans have ruled that out, but conservative concerns were such that Speaker John Boehner told his conference it would not happen.
Despite plans to cut Obama's requested spending level, conservatives remained skeptical of the legislation. "The acceptable spending level is zero," said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.
Several House Republicans said there was some discussion in Friday's meeting of holding a vote, in concert with action on the border, to overturn an earlier Obama directive on immigration that deferred deportation for certain immigrants brought here illegally as children.
Whether legislation would reach Obama's desk before August remained highly unlikely, however. Senate Democrats oppose policy changes that would return migrant children to their countries without judicial hearings. House Republicans insist on those changes as a condition for approving any emergency money.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Obama supports policy changes that would give the administration more authority to turn back Central American migrants at the border. But he said current proposals in Congress, including a bipartisan plan proposed by Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, do not meet White House standards of deterring illegal migration while protecting legitimate claims for asylum from border crossers.
Speaking during a breakfast with reporters, Pfeiffer also said that the White House is taking seriously the possibility that House Republicans could initiate impeachment proceedings against Obama if he acts on his own later this year on a broader immigration measure that could defer deportations for immigrants who have been inside the United States illegally for years.
"I think that when the president acts on immigration reform it will certainly up the likelihood that they would contemplate impeachment at some point," he said.
Boehner has said he has ruled out impeachment, but conservative commentators, including former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, have called for Obama to be impeached.