By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is to ask Congress for more than $2 billion to deal with the surge in unaccompanied children from Central America flooding into the United States along its southern border.
Obama will make the request for emergency funding in a letter on Monday, asking Congress to act when it returns from a holiday recess on July 7, a White House official said on Sunday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Central America this week for a visit that will include the inauguration of Panama's new president on July 1 and that is expected to include meetings on the crisis with Central American leaders.
In addition, Obama will seek greater authority for U.S. immigration officials to speed up the deportation of children caught crossing from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the official said.
The request will mark a major step in Obama's attempt to gain control of a chaotic scene on the U.S. border with Mexico where tens of thousands of children have crossed without their parents, straining resources and creating a political and humanitarian crisis.
Obama will ask Congress to increase penalties for the so-called "coyotes" who smuggle children across the border and profit from it.
The official said Obama will also request a "sustained border security surge through enhanced domestic enforcement," along with an increase in immigration judges to more speedily adjudicate the cases of recent border crossers.
Obama will step up efforts with Central American countries to repatriate migrants who are returned to their home countries and address the root causes of migration. And, the official said, he will seek "the resources necessary to appropriately detain, process and care for children and adults."
Kerry will travel to Panama - which has seen an increase in asylum requests from neighboring countries - for the inauguration of President-elect Juan Carlos Varela. The Spanish EFE news agency reported that Kerry will meet there on Tuesday with the leaders of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala about the crisis.
State Department officials declined to confirm details of Kerry's agenda. His meetings would follow a visit on June 20 by Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala City during which Central American presidents pressed for Washington to improve migrant rights.
In an ABC interview last week Obama urged Central American parents not to let their children leave on a frequently hazardous trip to the United States, but his words have so far had little impact as more than 52,000 children have crossed the border since last October.
Congressional Republicans have expressed outrage at the Obama administration's handling of the crisis, accusing the government of letting the children into the country to pile pressure on Congress to approve a long-stalled immigration overhaul.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jim Loney and Greg Mahlich)