MCALLEN, Texas -- The tens of thousands of Central American children entering the U.S. illegally is both a humanitarian crisis and a national security one, Texas Gov. Rick Perry testified Thursday at a congressional field hearing in South Texas.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended since October. Three-fourths of them are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and say they are fleeing pervasive gang violence and crushing poverty.
Wednesday’s hearing by the House Homeland Security committee in McAllen yielded agreement that there is a humanitarian crisis but disagreement among members about its roots or potential solutions. The discussion frequently reverted to the question of securing the border that has stymied attempts at comprehensive immigration reform in the House.
Perry attributed the waves of young immigrants to a failure to secure the border and recent changes in immigration policy that he says sent a message to Central America that if the children came they would be allowed to stay. He and Republican members of the committee said they should be deported more quickly and the National Guard should be brought in to secure the border.
"Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals to undertake this very, very dangerous and life-threatening journey," Perry said.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said she was prepared to support funding that would provide the resources necessary to help cases move through immigration courts faster, but that quick deportations were not the answer.
"A massive deportation policy for children and a mandatory detaining for children is not a humane thing to do," she said.
On June 18, Perry announced that the state would steer another $1.3 million per week to the Department of Public Safety to assist in border security through at least the end of the year. He followed that two days later with a letter inviting President Barack Obama to see the crisis firsthand.
The White House had earlier asked Congress for $1.4 billion to help house, feed and transport the unaccompanied children, and on June 2, Obama called it an "urgent humanitarian situation," putting FEMA in charge of coordinating the response.
The issue of unaccompanied children began drawing national attention in late May with the logjam it created in Border Patrol stations, but the number of immigrant children housed in government shelters had doubled in 2012, nearly doubled again in 2013 and is on pace to double again this year.
The administration appears to be responding now in ways demanded by Republicans, minus the additional National Guard troops.
On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that 150 additional Border Patrol agents would be immediately deployed to the Rio Grande Valley. This surge, however, has the unusual characteristic that the waves of mothers and children turn themselves in to the first uniform they see. When smugglers are not worried about evading authorities, but instead just have to get their human cargo onto U.S. soil, it decreases the deterrence value of boots on the ground.
To that end, the administration wants to stop releasing children and families to remove that incentive. On Monday, Obama asked Congress for flexibility to deport children more quickly and $2 billion to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities.
Last week, officials announced that barracks at a federal law enforcement training center in New Mexico would be used as temporary detention facilities for women traveling with young children. In recent months, they had made up the bulk of those immigrants released at bus stations with instructions to check in with immigration officials once they reached their destinations.
Rev. Mark Seitz, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, led a fact-finding trip to Central America late last year to investigate why children were leaving. He left with the impression that the gang violence was an even stronger drive than the intense poverty.
"A deterrence strategy including expedited removal of these children places this vulnerable population at even greater risk and will not necessarily stem the child migrant flow," he testified Thursday.