WASHINGTON — When President Obama travels to Texas next week, he will come as close as he has been in weeks to the rapidly escalating border crisis that has left thousands of unaccompanied children in shelters and spurred angry protests throughout the country.
But despite being battered on all sides on the issue, a White House spokesman said Thursday that the president had no intention of visiting the border for a firsthand look at the scene of what he has called a humanitarian crisis.
“The reason that some people are suggesting the president should go to border when he’s in Texas is because they’d rather play politics than actually trying to address some of these challenges,” Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Thursday.
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In politics, pictures are among the most powerful tools to dramatize policy problems or drive a point home. But a border visit for Mr. Obama raises difficult political questions when he is struggling to balance his message on immigration. Mr. Obama is simultaneously trying to beat back the illegal influx of Central American migrants and vowing to take unilateral action to move his stalled immigration agenda, which includes allowing millions of people in the country illegally to stay in the United States.
“The administration can look too nice or too mean, and finding the middle ground is going to be very, very difficult,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
A picture of the president surveying a fortified border could inflame the passions of his allies pressing for an immigration overhaul, who have criticized him for stepping up deportations and enforcement without doing enough to address the plight of those in the country illegally.
But Mr. Obama and his team are determined to maintain a hard-line message — first delivered by the president in a television interview last week — that migrant children who cross the border illegally will not be able to stay in the United States, so their parents should not send them.
“He doesn’t want to go and sort of stand there with his hands on his hips saying, ‘Don’t come in,’ ” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorksUSA, an employer group advocating an immigration overhaul. “At the same time, most of the public thinks that we should have a reasonable immigration policy, but it can’t be everybody who shows up gets to come in.”
Mr. Obama’s trip to Texas, she added, is “a little snapshot of the corner he’s in” on the issue.
On Thursday, more than 200 immigrant advocacy groups urged Mr. Obama to reconsider any proposal to limit existing special protections for unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border. “The administration’s recent statements have placed far greater emphasis on deterrence of migration than on the importance of protection of children seeking safety,” the organizations wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama.
But House Republican leaders who participated in a tour of the South Texas border by members of the House Judiciary Committee said the president was not doing nearly enough to deter families and children from risking the dangers of the journey across Mexico.
“Clearly there is little if any consequence right now for illegal immigration and that needs to change,” said Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the committee, speaking by telephone from Harlingen, Tex., at the end of the tour. He said the president should apply fast-track deportations to many more people crossing the border illegally and step up deportations from inside the country.
Another Republican on the tour, Representative Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the president should cancel a two-year-old program that gives protection from deportation to young immigrants living illegally in this country since childhood. He and 29 other House lawmakers sent a letter to Mr. Obama on Wednesday demanding an end to the program.
But in an unusual glimmer of possible accord between the White House and Republican lawmakers, Mr. Goodlatte said the House would be willing to “take a very close look” if Mr. Obama sent over narrowly tailored proposals to toughen enforcement and “make it easier for the Border Patrol to do their jobs.”
Policy makers on all sides were focusing increasingly on a mesh of laws mandating special treatment of unaccompanied migrant children, most of which were passed under President George W. Bush.
Under an anti-trafficking statute adopted — with bipartisan support — in 2008, minors caught traveling without their parents, if they are not from Mexico, cannot be rapidly deported. Youths from Central America must be transferred within 72 hours from the Border Patrol to the Department of Health and Human Services, which detains them in shelters and works to release them to parents or other responsible adults in the United States.
The president will seek a legal change that would allow the border authorities to treat minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — the home countries of most recent migrants — the way they now treat unaccompanied minors from Mexico, a country that has a different procedure because it shares a border with the United States. Under the 2008 law, youths from contiguous countries are questioned by border agents immediately after they are caught. If they do not express fear of returning home or say they have been victims of trafficking, agents can secure their consent to be deported and they are rapidly returned home.
“It’s a fair way to deal with people in the immigration system,” Mr. Earnest said of the expedited procedures. In addition, he said, “It sends a clear and unmistakable signal to parents who might be considering putting their children in the hands of a stranger, in some cases a criminal, to transport them to the southwest border, with the expectation that if they get to the border that they’ll be allowed to remain in the country: That is simply not the case.”
Mr. Goodlatte said he might support the White House proposal, but he would also seek measures to detain and deport more parents in the United States illegally who encourage children to make the dangerous journey.
Federal officials in South Texas have told lawmakers that more than 85 percent of the unaccompanied minors from Central America have been released to close relatives living in this country, including about half released to at least one parent. Many youths reported they were fleeing criminal violence by increasingly aggressive street gangs in their home countries.
Next week Mr. Obama is expected to formally send a request for funds and legal changes allowing him to expand detention and to deport more migrants, including children, more quickly, part of a broad effort to dissuade others from coming. Mr. Obama announced this week that he would seek the funding, expected to top $2 billion.
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“Playing politics” is scarcely new. Obama has done quite a bit of it himself, in fact. Too bad he cannot find a way to make this situation work for his ultimate goals.