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Senate panel seeks $2.28 billion to aid immigrant children

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate panel, responding to what President Barack Obama calls an urgent humanitarian situation, on Tuesday advanced legislation significantly increasing funds to handle a surge of foreign children entering the United States illegally.

Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, included up to $2.28 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to feed and shelter the estimated 130,000 minors expected to arrive in the coming year.

That is up from the $868 million that Congress provided this year to handle an estimated 60,000 undocumented children who will leave their homes in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and travel to the United States without relatives.

The funding increase is sparking a backlash from some conservative Republicans in Congress.

Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho told reporters that providing shelter and legal representation to these unaccompanied minors would encourage more of them to enter the United States illegally.

"Send them home and encourage them to stay home," Labrador said.

An estimated 60 percent of the children end up being deported, according to immigration advocacy groups. The others are allowed to stay, at least temporarily, under existing law. Many are reunited with parents already living in the United States.

A Senate aide familiar with the issue told Reuters that appropriators also planned a "significant" increase in funds for the Department of Homeland Security next year. That agency is initially in charge of the unaccompanied minors when they are caught by federal agents, most often at the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas by the Mexican border.

On Monday, a senior administration official told reporters an additional $560 million would be requested to help the department handle the influx of children.

The massive increase in children arriving illegally from Central America - the number was around 6,000 in 2011 - has put budget pressures on Congress as it tries to stay within broad spending caps for 2015.

It also has Obama administration officials trying to figure out ways to care for the children, who usually are trying to reunite with their parents in the United States, while discouraging more of them from coming.

Some Republicans are blaming Obama for the surge of undocumented children, saying his moves to ease some deportations have led those living in Central America to believe there is an open-door policy on immigration.

Immigration groups, however, note that Obama has carried out far more deportations than his predecessor, former President George W. Bush.

Administration officials say the surge in unaccompanied minors is directly related to growing drug- and gang-related violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They also note that countries with more-stable economies and law enforcement are not experiencing an exodus of children.

Some experts also say the improving U.S. economy attracts children trying to escape poverty and domestic abuse in their native countries.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Lisa Von Ahn)

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