President Barack Obama on Wednesday forcefully defended his decision not to visit the Texas border with Mexico to view a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, saying he’s “not interested in photo ops” and challenging Congress to give him new authority to respond to the situation.
“Nothing has taken place down there that I’m not intimately aware of,” Obama said during a hastily arranged news conference here, where he began a two-day visit to the state for Democratic fundraising and an economic event. “This is not theater.”
His remarks came after a meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and local leaders to discuss his administration’s response to an influx of tens of thousands of foreign children, mostly from Central America, who have entered the state illegally.
Obama, under mounting pressure from members of both parties to view the border situation firsthand, said he has been well briefed by his Cabinet aides and called on Congress to quickly approve $3.7 billion in emergency funding to help manage the influx.
Perry, a Republican, has loudly criticized Obama’s border policies in recent days. In their meeting, Perry asked the president to beef up border patrols, deploy Predator drones and National Guard troops, and pursue changes to federal law that would allow the minors to be deported more quickly, according to aides on both sides.
Obama said there was nothing Perry asked for that he had a philosophical objection to and said he had instructed his staff to work with the governor on some of his suggestions. But the president added that “if you ask people what we should be doing, they give suggestions that are already embodied in legislation I’ve sent to Congress.
“The challenge is, is Congress prepared to act to put resources in place to get this done?” Obama said. “Another way of putting it is, are people more interested in politics than solving problems? If they are interested in solving the problem, this can be solved. If they prefer politics, the problem won’t get solved.”
Perry, who had warned Obama of a rising number of minors at the border in a 2012 letter, sounded a sharper note in a statement released by his office after the meeting.
“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,” the statement said. “Securing the border is attainable, and the president needs to commit the resources necessary to get this done.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement after Obama’s Dallas remarks that “Texans do not need a lecture from a man who refuses to even see the crisis firsthand. President Obama can fundraise and issue statements. Texans will work to solve the problem.”
White House officials ruled out a visit by the president to the border amid his scheduled stops in Dallas on Wednesday and Austin on Thursday, leading to criticism from lawmakers who also chided him for a series of lighthearted events in Denver on Tuesday night. The president drank beer and shot pool with Colorado’s governor and was photographed shaking hands with a man wearing a horse-head mask. He also spoke about the economy and attended a fundraiser.
“If he had time, with all due respect, to have a beer and play pool like he did in Colorado last night, then I think after the fundraisers he should make time to go down there,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told CNN.
Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, said in an interview that “if he’s not going today, he should go sometime very soon, and it’s not so much to see the facilities but to see the children.”
Though administration aides said they have no regrets about forgoing a border trip, the pressure clearly got to the White House. Cuellar said he was visited by White House officials to discuss his concerns, though he declined to say with whom he spoke.
Meanwhile, aides arranged the president’s meeting with local officials at the last moment before leaving Washington and accepted Perry’s demands for a face-to-face meeting.
Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, whose district stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and includes the longest stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border of any House district, defended the White House on Wednesday.
A presidential visit “would create an unneeded distraction by diverting law enforcement and other resources at a critical time,” Gallego said in a statement. “We don’t need photo ops, we need action. The ball is in Congress’s court to do this right.”
Obama said he pressed Perry to lobby Capitol Hill Republicans, especially the Texas delegation, to support his emergency funding request. GOP lawmakers have reacted skeptically, saying the president has not proved he will strictly enforce border-control laws and should not be given more money until he does so.
Perry, Obama said, suggested the president take far stronger actions along the border without waiting for Congress. Obama said he reminded Perry that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has announced a lawsuit against the president for abusing his executive authority.
“Don’t wait for me to take executive actions if you have the capacity to get the job done,” Obama said of Congress.
The ill will between Obama and Perry dates back several years. In a letter to Obama more than two years ago, Perry raised alarms about an increase in unaccompanied children crossing the southern border, citing federal statistics at the time showing that the number of minors had shot up 90 percent.
“By failing to take immediate action to return these minors to their countries of origin and prevent and discourage others from coming here, the federal government is perpetuating the problem,” Perry wrote to Obama in May 2012. “Inaction encourages other minors to place themselves in extremely dangerous situations. ... Every day of delay risks more lives. Every child allowed to remain encourages hundreds more to attempt the journey.”
The number of unaccompanied children at the border, which was 5,200 in 2012, has shot up to more than 52,000 this year.
Perry said he never received an answer to his letter, but White House officials said federal officials briefed the governor’s staff more than once on the administration’s efforts to deal with border security after receiving the it.
On Wednesday, Obama said: “It would be useful for my Republican friends to rediscover the concept of negotiation and compromise. These days in Washington, everything falls victim to partisan politics. If I sponsor a bill declaring apple pie American, it might fall victim to partisan politics.”
Nakamura reported from Washington. Washington Post staff writer Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.