Images of children packed like sardines into customs centers tug at the heartstrings of most Americans. The kids are alone and frightened after harrowing journeys from their homes in Central America.

A combination of events has sent tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors to America’s southern borders in recent months, putting sudden demands on this nation’s already inadequate immigration system. An immediate and humane response is critical.

President Obama has urged Congress to approve $3.7 billion to deal with the “urgent humanitarian’’ situation. The emergency funding would be used to hire more immigration judges and asylum officers, build more detention facilities, beef up deterrence and enforcement, and increase surveillance along the border with Mexico.

About half of the funding would go to the Department of Health and Human Services to care for the kids — including providing food, shelter and medical care.

More than 50,000 young people have crossed the border unaccompanied since last fall. If the current rates continue, Border Patrol officials estimate that the number could swell to 90,000 by the end of September. Many are fleeing oppressive violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and some are drawn by rumors that once they make it to the United States they will be allowed to stay. An estimated one-third to one-half of the children hope to be reunited with family members in the United States.

Congress should stop its bickering and act on the administration’s request, with a priority on getting funds to border control and HHS to help care for and hear the cases of kids who are already here.

As part of the request, Obama wants a change in current law to allow for faster deportation. He’s also urged parents and families in Central America to stop sending their children to the United States and has made it clear that it’s unlikely they’ll be able to stay.

Under current U.S. law, children from nations other than Mexico and Canada have the right to a hearing to determine if they have a legitimate immigration claim. Often the court proceedings to determine status can take months or years. While its important to resolve the cases more quickly, the children should receive appropriate representation and due process, and those with legitimate claims should not be deported.

Local immigration and human-rights advocates say they are working on cases in which young girls have been abused and involved in human trafficking. Other young people have been victims of violent gang activity. Getting the real story and collecting evidence about what happened to frightened children can take time. In the meantime, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that many of the Central American children should be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict.

Both the push and pull factors of what brought the children to the United States must be considered. The young immigrants are pushed out of their home countries because of poverty, poor prospects for their futures, and organized criminal violence and corruption. And many are drawn to the United States because an estimated 2.5 million Central Americans already live here — some undocumented and some with temporary protective status. That limbo status for too many of the nation’s estimated 11 million immigrants is another argument for comprehensive reform.

In addition, earlier this week a coalition of business, manufacturing and agricultural leaders that included the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce held events in 25 states to urge Congress and the administration to collaborate on immigration reform, arguing in part that immigrants are major contributors to the nation’s economic growth.

The Senate passed a comprehensive and bipartisan immigration bill a year ago, only to see it die in the fractured House. Election-year politics make the $3.7 billion request a long shot, but the crisis unfolding along the border demands a timely response from a distracted Congress.