DALLAS — President Barack Obama on Wednesday directly challenged Gov. Rick Perry of Texas to rally Republicans in support of a $3.7 billion emergency measure aimed at solving the humanitarian crisis caused as thousands of Central American children have crossed the Mexican border.
The president described a frank exchange with Perry, who has been one of his most vocal critics, after their private meeting aboard the presidential helicopter and then at Dallas Love Field airport.
The meeting was hastily negotiated as the border crisis came to shadow Obama’s previously planned trip to Texas and Colorado to raise campaign money and talk about an improving economy.
The president said the emergency aid would address Republicans’ calls for increased border security while also providing care for the thousands of unaccompanied children who have been detained in the Rio Grande Valley. Obama suggested that election-year political maneuvering was blocking the package because Republicans see the crisis as a way to damage him and his party.
“The problem here is not major disagreement around the actions that could be helpful,’’ Obama said he told Perry. “The challenge is, is Congress prepared to act to put the resources in place to get this done?’’
“Another way of putting it — and I said this directly to the governor — is, are folks more interested in politics, or are they more interested in solving the problem?’’ Obama said.
Perry, in a statement after his meeting with the president, reiterated that the crisis was the result of “bad public policy,’’ though he did not specify — as he has in the past — that Obama’s policies were to blame. He also again asked Obama to visit the border, about 500 miles south of Dallas, a call that Obama rejected on Wednesday.
“This isn’t theater; this is a problem,’’ he said. “I’m not interested in photo-ops. I’m interested in solving a problem.’’
Obama promised to “do the right thing by these children.’’ But he also urged parents in Central America to stop sending their children into the U.S., a trip he called especially dangerous.
“It is unlikely that their children will be able to stay,’’ Obama said. More than 52,000 children have flooded into the U.S. in the last eight months.
Obama’s arrival in Texas, the state with the longest border with Mexico, focused attention on the emerging spike in migration from Central America as well as the political stalemate between the president and his Republican adversaries on a broader immigration overhaul.
The president and Perry met before a round-table discussion on the border issue with local officials and religious leaders.
The governor, who had initially refused to stand for an Air Force One photo opportunity with the president, ultimately did greet Obama on the tarmac at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The pair shook hands amiably if not warmly, and they chatted as they walked to the Marine One helicopter for a brief ride to the Love Field site of the round-table discussion, with Obama at one point putting his hand on the governor’s back.
Obama said his Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, would soon make his sixth trip to the border to coordinate the federal response with that of the Perry administration. Jim Cole, the deputy attorney general, was in the border town of McAllen, Texas, on Wednesday to tour the Customs and Border Protection facility there and to discuss shifting resources to the region.
Perry’s handling of the crisis is being closely watched by Republicans, given that his 2012 bid for the party’s presidential nomination failed partly because of a sense among the party’s hard-liners that he was too soft on immigration, supporting policies like tuition benefits for Latinos brought into Texas as children.
Signaling a tougher stance, he has called on Obama to deploy 1,000 more National Guard troops to the border and use additional surveillance drones to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. Obama indicated that he had not ruled out such measures, but that they ultimately were not the answer.
“We’re happy to consider how we could deploy National Guard down there, but that’s a temporary solution,’’ he said.
The long-term answer, Obama said, would be to pass a year-old bipartisan Senate bill overhauling the immigration system and providing more border security and a path to citizenship for millions who have lived and worked in the country illegally for years.
In Washington, congressional Republicans expressed both frustration and skepticism about Obama’s aid request, and members of Obama’s administration told Congress that they were straining under what one called the “difficult and distressing’’ surge of unaccompanied minors across the border.
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that “the children continue to come across the border’’ despite the government’s best efforts.
Congressional Republicans are left with a dilemma. Their goals are to increase the federal presence on the border and address what they agree is a humanitarian crisis, but they do not want to accomplish them by giving Obama $3.7 billion that would help get him out of a situation that they believe is of his own making.
“What I do think this shows is another area where lack of leadership from this administration is coming back to haunt us,’’ said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
At the root of the crisis is a 2008 law intended to curb human trafficking abuses. It requires officials to provide extra legal protections for migrants coming from countries that do not share a border with the United States. The unintended consequence has been to allow children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to overwhelm the immigration system.
Some Republicans have said that before they would vote in favor of Obama’s request, they would need to see the 2008 law amended or repealed to expedite the children’s return to their home countries. Some also said they wanted the relief spending to be matched by cuts in other areas.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he was working with the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, to introduce legislation on Thursday that would amend the 2008 law to treat immigrants from such countries who enter the U.S. illegally by the same rules that currently apply to Mexico and Canada. The change, he said, would speed up deportations.
On the Democratic side, Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, and Dianne Feinstein of California, have expressed deep reservations about sending the children back to potentially dangerous situations.
“I think we’d better think twice,’’ Durbin said. Feinstein likened the situation to the “boatloads of Jewish immigrants trying to come to this country during Nazi Germany and getting turned back.’’
“That’s not what this country is all about,’’ she said. “This, in my view, has to be handled in a way which is compassionate.’’
The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Council also stepped in on Wednesday, filing a class-action lawsuit in Seattle on behalf of the children. The suit argues that the federal government is failing to provide them with adequate legal representation during the deportation process.