WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson expressed confidence that the federal government can successfully deal with the surge of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border but it likely will cost billions of dollars to deal with the ongoing crisis.
In testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Johnson urged lawmakers to adopt the $3.7 billion plan proposed by President Obama, warning that revenues are running low in the Department of Homeland Security because of outlays already used to address the situation.
Without the supplemental funding, Johnson told lawmakers, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will run out of money sometime in mid-August, forcing the Department of Homeland Security to divert funds from other critical programs to maintain operations.
Meanwhile, Johnson said, the Department of Health and Human Services will find itself unable to secure sufficient shelter capacity, leading to more children being held at short-term border patrol processing stations for longer periods of time. Border Patrol agents will have to be reassigned to assist at facilities housing the children rather than carrying out their duties along the Rio Grande.
“In cooperation with the other agencies of our government that are dedicating resources to the effort, with the support of Congress, and in cooperation with the governments of Mexico and Central America, I believe we can stem this tide and address the broader issues,” Johnson said. “The requested supplemental funding is critical to enabling the Department to fulfill its mission and address the dramatic surge in unaccompanied children and families in a manner that maintains border security and reflects our laws and values.”
But it appears unlikely that the White House will succeed in its effort. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Friday that the request is “too much money — we don’t need it.” Instead he suggested the lower chamber will fund only immediate needs along the border and address other issues through the standard appropriations process.
Meanwhile, the package doesn’t appear to be faring much better with Senate Republicans. Arizona’s two GOP senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, are introducing legislation to address the situation, asserting that the administration plan fails to resolve the problem.
The measure, among other things, establishes an expedited removal process for all undocumented immigrants – including children — stopped at the border attempting to enter the U.S. illegally, allowing law enforcement to return them to their home countries within a matter of hours or days as opposed to the months or years.
The lawmakers also seek to amend a law passed in 2008 regarding the treatment of unaccompanied children crossing the border from non-contiguous countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, making their status the same as those from Mexico and Canada. That, they said, will lead to swifter repatriation.
McCain and Flake cited statistics showing only 1,669 of the 20,805 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras apprehended by the Border Patrol were repatriated to their home countries in FY 2013. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so far this year, the U.S. has repatriated only 890 of the approximately 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America who have been apprehended.
“The federal government will only stem the flow of unaccompanied minors to the United States when their parents see us sending them right back,” Flake said. “This legislation gives the administration the flexibility it has requested so it can begin to do just that.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest indicated the administration is ready to work with Democrats and Republicans to address the situation.
“The president has moved quickly to be very clear about what specifically needs to be funded,” Earnest said. “And we would like to see Republicans back up their rhetoric with the kind of urgent action that this situation merits.”
Most of the estimated 57,000 unaccompanied children who have crossed the southern border since the beginning of the year have come from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Officials expect the total to reach 90,000 by the end of 2014. The children found by border agents are described as dehydrated, malnourished, scared and abused. Thousands are being held at makeshift shelters in Border Patrol stations and military bases in the U.S.