MCALLEN, Texas (AP) — 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. “And those who come must be sent back to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that risking your lives on the top of those trains and the ways that they are coming here, it’s not worth it.”
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.
Perry’s Remarks as prepared for delivery to the committee:
Good afternoon. I’d like to open my remarks by thanking and commending the members of this committee who made the trip down here. Chairman McCaul is demonstrating true leadership in elevating the visibility of what’s happening along the border.
I would also like to recognize Chairwoman Granger, who is leading the Speaker’s Working Group on the Humanitarian Crisis at the Southern Border, and other members of Congress who are here today in response to these ongoing crises.
And make no mistake, there is more than one crisis happening along the U.S. border.
The first is a humanitarian crisis, suffered by a growing number of individuals crossing our border illegally … many of them just children.
Last week, I witnessed the difficult conditions these children are being housed in while they await action by Washington, whether it’s the right decision to immediately deport them, or the shortsighted and tragic decision to essentially turn them loose in the United States.
Some might think allowing them to stay is a more humane option, I assure you, it is not.
Nobody is doing any of these children the slightest favor by delaying a rapid return to their countries of origin, which in many cases is not Mexico.
Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals to undertake the same life-threatening journey.
Those who have come must be sent back to demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that risking their lives to cross Mexico and enter our country simply isn’t worth it.
Even those who have survived the treacherous journey are still at risk.
We’ve already had one confirmed case of H1N1 in Texas, and have been informed by our federal partners of two additional cases of Type A influenza that are likely to be H1N1, in addition to reports of other illnesses at other detention facilities.
The second crisis is a crisis of national security.
The rapid influx of illegal immigrants has strained border resources that were already insufficient to the task at hand. Officials who should be guarding the border are dealing with the overflow instead of fulfilling their primary tasks.
As a result, the border between the U.S. and Mexico is less secure today than at any time in the recent past, which is why we ordered the new surge.
We know that drug cartels and transnational gangs are already seeking to take advantage of the situation, attempting to circumvent security and spread pain and suffering on both sides of the border through their criminal activities.
We’re also in danger at the hands of those who might be slipping through from countries with known terrorist ties. With a range of potential threats facing us from abroad, this is not the time to turn our attention elsewhere.
That’s why Texas has taken steps to supplement its law enforcement operations along the border.
Currently, we’re directing $1.3 million in additional funding per week to increase our law-enforcement efforts through at least the end of the calendar year. This is in addition to the more than $500 million we’ve committed to border security since 2005.
Our current operations include increased DPS aircraft patrols, maritime operations, and the utilization of Ranger Recon teams, who are able to quickly respond to remote areas where suspected activity is taking place.
I welcome the funding President Obama has publically announced, but also ask the federal government for the following:
First, increase the Texas National Guard units involved in border security operations…That includes keeping the fleet of UH-72 Lakota aircraft in Texas to continue its vital missions.
Second, if the U.S. Border Patrol is going to release illegal immigrants into our communities to await a court date, every one should be medically screened to ensure their health and the health of our citizens.
Third, Texas should be reimbursed for the $500 million we’ve spent securing the border over the past decade. We’ve been fulfilling a federal responsibility, and the hardworking people of Texas shouldn’t have to shoulder that cost on their own.
And finally, secure this border once and for all. Invest sufficient resources to put an adequate number of Border Patrol agents on the ground permanently, and utilize existing technology, including drones, to help plug the gaps in security operations currently being filled by Texans.
Thank you again for the opportunity to appear before this committee. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.
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