President Barack Obama, resisting calls to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, met Wednesday with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other officials to discuss the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America that has become a political liability for the president and a test of his administration's competence.
Obama and Perry, a Republican who may seek the White House in 2016, had a businesslike encounter at the steps of Air Force One before the private meeting. The president was expected to make remarks following the discussion.
The roundtable in Dallas is seen by the White House as a way to address the immigration issue while avoiding awkward optics at the border. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have arrived there in recent months, many fleeing violence in Central America, but also drawn by rumors that they can stay in the U.S. White House officials say most are unlikely to qualify for humanitarian relief and will be sent back to their home countries.
Obama arrived in Dallas early Wednesday evening. He bounded down the stairs and gave Perry a big wave. Perry didn't wave back, but the two shook hands and then quickly turned and walked toward Marine One, the helicopter that would take them to the round-table meeting. Obama put his hand on Perry's back for some of the walk.
Obama's decision to skip a border visit is likely to provide more fodder for the Republicans and the handful of Democrats who say the president hasn't responded quickly and forcefully enough to the mounting crisis.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, raised the prospect that Obama's failure to take a firsthand look at the border crisis could be akin to former President George W. Bush viewing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina from the air instead of on the ground.
"I'm sure that President Bush thought the same thing, that he could just look at everything from up in the sky, and then he owned it after a long time," Cuellar said on Fox News. "So I hope this doesn't become the Katrina moment for President Obama, saying that he doesn't need to come to the border. He should come down."
Perry, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016, has been scathing in his criticism of Obama, saying the White House has failed to respond to his repeated warnings about a flood of minors at the border.
"I have to believe that when you do not respond in any way, that you are either inept, or you have some ulterior motive of which you are functioning from," Perry said Sunday.
Even immigrant advocates, who say Obama's response has been too focused on enhancing enforcement and deportation, said he would benefit from witnessing the influx first hand.
"It would have been nice for him to see and speak to some of these children and some of these mothers with children who've come -- to find out first hand why they're coming," Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women's Refugee Commission, said Wednesday. "I think that would make a difference in how he sees this problem."
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House wasn't worried about the optics of the president traveling to Texas without visiting the border. Officials also pointed to Obama's request to Congress on Tuesday for additional resources at the border as a sign of the president's engagement in the crisis.
If approved by Congress, the funding would go to increase detention, care and transportation of unaccompanied children, help speed the removal of adults with children by increasing the capacity of immigration courts, and increase prosecution of smuggling networks. The money also would help increase surveillance at the border and help Central American countries repatriate border-crossers sent back from the United States.
Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill seemed open to the emergency spending request. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would act on it this month.
But Republicans criticized Obama for pulling back on plans to pursue legal changes that would allow the administration to send the minors back to Central America more quickly. The proposals had infuriated immigrant advocates, who say the changes could result in harsh treatment of kids and eliminate their legal protections.
"He just decided not to do that because of the pushback he got from some in his own political base," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "We need to solve the problem, but you don't need to just ignore the cause of the current crisis. And that requires more than just appropriating $3.7 billion for additional judges and the like."