DALLAS — President Barack Obama, seeking to keep a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border from becoming a deeper political liability, pushed back Wednesday at critics who have cast his administration's response to the influx of unaccompanied children as slow and ineffective.
To those pressing Obama to visit the border during his two-day trip to Texas, he retorted: "This is not theater. This is a problem."
Among Obama's harshest critics has been Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate who is mulling another run for the White House. Perry greeted Obama upon his arrival Wednesday evening, then discussed the situation at the border with him privately and during a larger meeting with local officials and faith leaders.
Obama cast his meeting with Perry as "constructive" and argued he is already seeking to do much of what the governor is calling for, including sending additional resources to the border to make the deportation process more effective.
"Bottom line is that there's nothing the governor indicated he'd like to see that I have a philosophical objection to," Obama said.
Perry, in a statement released after his meeting with Obama, made no mention of any agreement with the president.
"Five hundred miles south of here in the Rio Grande Valley, there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding that has been created by bad public policy, in particular the failure to secure the border," he said.
Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said in testimony before a House committee Wednesday that the number of children picked up since October is 57,000, up from 52,000 in mid June and more than double what it was at the same time last year.
While much of the criticism of Obama has come from Republicans, some members of Obama's own party were starting to make the case that Obama would be well-advised to visit the border and see the situation for himself.
"Going out there and talking to people who live this day in and day out — that's the perspective that's missing," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
For Obama, the border crisis has added another layer of complications to the already fraught debate in Washington over the nation's immigration laws.
With no indication that congressional Republicans plan to take up comprehensive legislation, Obama has vowed to make needed changes through his executive powers. But the GOP argues that the action he took on his own in 2012 to allow some young people in the United States to illegally stay in the country is to blame for the current crisis, a contention the White House disputes.
The youths arriving at the border are, in some cases, fleeing violence in their home countries. But their arrival also appears to stem from rumors that they would be allowed to stay if they reached the United States.
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Obama, who is primarily in Texas to raise money for Democrats, said he was getting frequent updates about the situation from his staff and appeared to see little additional benefit in viewing the situation himself.
"There's nothing that is taking place down there that I am not intimately aware of," Obama said, noting that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was readying for his sixth trip to the border in recent weeks.
Perry, who has pressed Obama to go, has visited the Rio Grande Valley twice since the surge in unaccompanied child immigrants gained national attention. On June 23, he visited a Border Patrol facility and spoke of an "untenable situation." On July 3, Perry testified at a House Homeland Security Committee field hearing in McAllen, Texas, reiterating his call for Obama to come see the situation at the border.
Obama said he was open to suggestions from Perry and others that he dispatch National Guard troops to the border but warned such a solution would only work temporarily. He said Republicans appealing for him to embrace their ideas for addressing the crisis should grant his request for $3.7 billion in emergency spending so the government will have the resources to put those ideas into action.
But as Obama traveled to Texas, Republican opposition hardened to his request, leaving any solution unclear.
In Washington, Republicans denounced him on the Senate floor. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has supported Obama's stalled quest to remake the nation's immigration laws, said he could not support the president's spending request.
"I cannot vote for a provision which will then just perpetuate an unacceptable humanitarian crisis that's taking place on our southern border," McCain said on the Senate floor, where he was joined by fellow Arizonian Jeff Flake and Texas Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. They took turns blaming Obama's policies for causing the border situation, contending that his efforts to relax some deportations have contributed to rumors circulating in Central America that once here, migrant kids will be allowed to stay.
"Amnesty is unfolding before our very eyes," Cruz said.