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Migrants: Obama urges Latin leaders, GOP to help

Saturday - 7/26/2014, 11:18am  ET

El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, left, Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Honduran President Juan Hernandez meet to discuss Central American immigration and the border crisis in the Cabinet Room of the White House Friday, July 25, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pressing for swift action, President Barack Obama on Friday urged Central American presidents and congressional Republicans to help ease the influx of minors and migrant families crossing the southwest border of the U.S.

He emphasized to the regional leaders that despite U.S. compassion for migrant children, those who do not have a proper claim to remain in the U.S. will be turned back.

While citing progress in stemming the flow, Obama called on House Republicans to act urgently on his request for emergency spending. With one week left before Congress' August recess, Republicans on Friday were trying to unite behind a plan that would spend about one-fourth of the amount in Obama's proposal.

"It is my hope that Speaker Boehner and House Republicans will not leave town for the month of August for their vacations without doing something to help solve this problem," Obama said after meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. "We need action and less talk."

Obama played down a proposed pilot program that his administration is considering that would give refugee status to young people from Honduras. White House officials said the plan, which could be expanded to Guatemala and El Salvador, would involve screening youths in their home countries to determine whether they qualify for refugee status.

Obama said such an effort would affect only a small number of asylum seekers.

"There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for," he said. If that were the case it would be better for them to apply in-country rather than take a very dangerous journey up to Texas to make those same claims. But I think it's important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number of additional migrants."

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said Obama urged the region to work with the U.S. to resolve the immediate crisis and also that it develop a medium- and long-term plan to prevent such a flight of migrants in the future.

"What he asked was that we be prepared to receive the children who are not classified to remain here," Molina said. "Ultimately we have a responsibility in our countries to be prepared to receive them and give them the attention and the processes they deserve."

Separately, the Homeland Security Department announced Friday it was boosting spending for law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley. The money would permit local police to support Customs and Border Protection by enhancing security in the region.

Obama's demand for congressional action came as GOP lawmakers said they were attempting to coalesce behind a narrow package of changes including sending National Guard troops to the border, increasing the number of U.S. immigration judges and changing a law so that migrant youths arriving by the tens of thousands could be sent home more quickly. The package would cost less than $1 billion, several lawmakers said, far less than the $3.7 billion Obama requested to deal with the crisis.

A number of Republicans exiting a special meeting on the issue in the Capitol said they had to act before leaving Washington late next week for their annual August recess.

"It would be a terrible message; leave town in August without having done anything, knowing that it's going to create even more of a crisis on the border," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. "Doing nothing in my view means that these children will be sent from the border back to communities like mine."

House Democrats called on Republicans to act on the spending bill without contentious policy changes attached that would cost Democratic votes and imperil Senate support.

"We are at risk of leaving here without addressing this issue," said Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Conservatives also expressed concerns that anything the House passed could become a vehicle for the Senate to attach conditions House Republicans oppose, even including the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship for millions.

House leaders and Senate Republicans have ruled that out, but conservative concerns were such that Speaker John Boehner told his conference it would not happen.

Despite plans to cut Obama's requested spending level, conservatives remained skeptical of the legislation. "The acceptable spending level is zero," said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Several House Republicans said there was some discussion in Friday's meeting of holding a vote, in concert with action on the border, to overturn an earlier Obama directive on immigration that deferred deportation for certain immigrants brought here illegally as children.

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