WASHINGTON – Congress seeks to stop an influx of unaccompanied children from Latin American countries as thousands continue to stream across the southern border – and wants enforcement to start with an “unambiguous message” from the Obama administration.
The House held three hearings last week on the crisis as federal officials struggle to slow the tide of young immigrants crossing the border.
More than 52,000 minors traveling without their parents have been caught crossing the southwest border illegally since October, including 9,000 in May alone. More than 250 children are being apprehended every day along the southern border.
Nearly two-thirds of them have crossed through the Rio Grande Valley section of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.
The surge in migration also includes 39,000 adults with children detained since October – an unprecedented figure. According to DHS data, the increase in unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras began in 2012 and has accelerated since then.
The massive wave of illegal immigration through the southern border has prompted outrage on Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans who maintain that the Obama administration’s immigration policies have fueled the influx.
“Word has gotten out that, once encountered by Border Patrol agents and processed, thanks to this administration’s lax enforcement policies, one will likely never be removed,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
Goodlatte pointed to a report from Rio Grande Valley border officials saying 95 percent of migrants interviewed said they believed a new U.S. law would give women traveling with minors and unaccompanied minors a free pass into the U.S.
At a different hearing, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) also blamed the Obama administration for wrongly encouraging poor residents of Latin American countries to believe that they can cross the border with no repercussions.
“The tragic fact is these children are making a dangerous journey based on misinformation and the false promise of amnesty,” McCaul said.
He said the economic condition and violence in these countries that have led to the surge of youth trying to cross the border are not new.
“What is new is the series of executive actions by the administration to grant immigration benefits to children outside the purview of the law,” he added.
Republican lawmakers specifically criticized a program created by President Obama in 2012 that defers deportation for many young illegal immigrants. The president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allowed certain undocumented immigrants who have graduated from U.S. schools or served in the U.S. military to be protected from deportation and allowed to work in the country legally.
“This administration should send an unambiguous message that those arriving will be promptly sent home. I, for one, do not want to see another child harmed because we have not clearly articulated the realities on the ground consistent with current law,” McCaul said.
McCaul said the U.S. Border Patrol estimates that next year more than 150,000 unaccompanied children may attempt to cross the border.
“This is a crisis. It’s a crisis that’s been in the making for years,” he said. “One that we should have seen coming. But few concrete actions have been taken. The Department of Homeland Security and the United States government as a whole has been slow to act, turning a blind eye to the warning signs.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the committee smugglers have spread a campaign of disinformation that these immigrants will get a “free pass” once they cross the border.
Once they arrive at the border, the children are simply turning themselves in to the nearest Border Patrol agents. About three-quarters of the children come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Johnson said he has sent an open letter to the parents of the children to inform them that DACA will not apply to the children arriving now or in the future in the U.S. He also said DHS is intensifying a public affairs campaign with radio, print, and TV spots in Spanish to emphasize the dangers of sending unaccompanied children to the U.S.
He said DHS has relocated agents from less active areas to the Rio Grande Valley to step up operations there. Johnson said the agency is considering sending 150 additional Border Patrol agents to the area.
DHS has only one permanent family detention center in Pennsylvania, with just 96 beds. The administration is dealing with the influx by creating temporary detention facilities on the border, including at military bases in Texas, to house the children before they can be transferred to the Health and Human Services Department (HHS).
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, who is heading the federal government’s coordinated response, said more capacity is needed to house the children and meet the processing requirements under existing law.
A 2008 law prohibits the U.S. government from immediately sending the children back to their home countries. Instead, the law requires the Border Patrol to transfer unaccompanied children to the HHS Office of Refuge Resettlement within 72 hours, where many are reunited with family members already living in the United States as they await deportation proceedings.
Fugate said the 72-hour limit for transfer is not being met. He said HHS has added over 3,000 beds at the temporary resettlement facilities and the Border Patrol is currently building a processing center and another one is expected in mid-July to meet the requirement.
Francisco Palmieri, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs at the State Department, said U.S. officials are working with their counterparts in Central America and Mexico to spread the word to families about the dangers of sending unaccompanied children to the U.S. border.
“Embassies in [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico] have launched aggressive public outreach campaigns to counter false messages and accurately portray the dangers of the journey,” he testified before a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee.
An official of the U.S. Agency for International Development told the subcommittee that the agency is increasing funding of programs aimed at addressing the root causes of the mass exodus of Central America: high murder rates, gang and drug violence, poverty, lack of education and employment opportunities.
A bipartisan congressional delegation will visit the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border this week to get a first-hand glimpse of the situation.