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.
Johnson acknowledged that there is a humanitarian dimension to the surge since so many crossing the border are children. The Obama administration intends to adhere to domestic and international law, due process and the basic principles of charity, decency and fairness, Johnson said. But he asserted the border “is not open to illegal migration.”
“Our message is clear to those who try to illegally cross our borders — you will be sent back home,” Johnson said. “We have already added resources to expedite the removal, without a hearing before an immigration judge, of adults who come from these three countries without children. We have worked with the governments of these countries to repatriate the adults quicker. Within the last several months, we have dramatically reduced the removal time of many of these migrants. Within the law, we are sending this group back, and we are sending them back quicker.”
Theories abound over the reasons behind the unprecedented surge of unaccompanied children. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the committee’s ranking member, placed the responsibility on the Obama administration for changes in immigration policy that led some of those entering illegally to believe their entry would be embraced.
“This crisis of unaccompanied alien children illegally crossing our borders is one that President Obama helped create in June 2012 with his decision to defer deportation of aliens who arrived here as children,” Shelby said. “The result of his lax and confusing immigration enforcement policies has been predictable, and hardly humanitarian.”
In fiscal year 2011 — before the White House deferred immigration enforcement for individuals under age 31 – the Department of Health and Human Services assumed custody of 6,560 unaccompanied alien children, Shelby said.
“The administration’s current rhetoric now describes the thousands of children flooding across our borders as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ that must be addressed,” Shelby said. “Yet, the president’s budget requests and policies have neglected to do so.”
But Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who visited the border to make a first-hand assessment of the situation, described a broader reason for the surge, calling it “the result of complex human tragedies.”
“Families separated by thousands of miles, children risking their lives to flee dangerous situations in their home countries, and communities across Central America devastated by violence, due in part to the drug trade and transnational criminal organizations” are all contributing to the crisis, Burwell said.
Honduras, for instance, now has the highest per capita murder rate in the world, leading to a mass exodus of those seeking safety.
“Unaccompanied children are subjecting themselves to serious risks to make the journey here and our Border Patrol stations are overcrowded to the breaking point,” Burwell said. “This is not an issue that lends itself to easy answers, but I am confident that, working together, we can care for the unaccompanied children in a way that honors the values of the American people while at the same time enforcing the law and dissuading children from undertaking this dangerous journey.”
The $3.7 billion requested includes $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide care for children involved in removal proceedings. Another $1.1 billion is intended to cover the depleted coffers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and $433 million will go to Customs and Border Protection, which manages the Border Patrol.
The package also includes money to fund additional immigration judges and programs aimed at Central America families to stop them from sending their children to the U.S.