HOUSTON -- 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 field hearing by the House Homeland Security in McAllen yielded agreement that there is a humanitarian crisis but disagreement among members about its roots or potential solutions.
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 to the border to secure it.
"Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals," Perry said.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said quick deportations of the children back to countries that have been unable to protect them would not be "humane."
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, citing the porous border and immigration policies that he said encouraged Central American families to take the risk. He asked for 1,000 National Guard troops and permission for the guard's use of Predator drones to detect human and drug trafficking. U.S. Customs and Border Protection already flies drones on the border, and the National Guard is engaged in counterdrug efforts.
The administration appears to be responding along similar lines, 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. But this surge has the unusual characteristic that the waves of mothers and children are turning themselves in to the first uniform they see. When smugglers don't have to worry about evading authorities and instead just have to get their human cargo onto U.S. soil, it decreases the deterrence value of boots on the ground.
The administration has tried to again move from 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. Officials said the New Mexico facility would be focused on faster deportations.
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 children housed in government shelters had doubled in 2012, nearly doubled again in 2013 and is on pace to double again this year.
Hearing examines impact of kids crossing border into Texas