The Homeland Security Department on Tuesday spelled out a 14-prong plan for confronting the sudden influx of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America into Southwestern states, a refugee challenge that a House committee chairman blamed on Obama administration short-sightedness in its immigration policies.
“This is a crisis that has been in the making for years -- one that we should have seen coming -- but few concrete actions have been taken,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told a hearing. The department “and the U.S. government as a whole [have been] slow to act, turning a blind eye to the warning signs.”
Since October, 52,000 minors -- three-fourths of them from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- have entered the United States from Mexico, the majority through Texas. Customs and Border Protection fears that another 150,000 may attempt to cross the border next year.
“The tragic fact is these children are making a dangerous journey based on misinformation and the false promise of amnesty,” said McCaul, blaming “a relaxed enforcement posture” and talk of comprehensive immigration reform. “The first step is for the administration to acknowledge the cause of this problem. No one questions the fact that there are horrible economic conditions and violence in Central America. But these conditions are not new.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who recently experienced the crisis first-hand by traveling to border facilities at Lackland air base near San Antonio, cautioned that the developments are a “vivid reminder that this is a humanitarian issue as much as it is a matter of border security. We are talking about large numbers of children, without their parents, who have arrived at our border -- hungry, thirsty, exhausted, scared and vulnerable. How we treat the children, in particular, is a reflection of our laws and our values.”
Homeland Security’s multi-agency response, Johnson said, must include processing the children already here as quickly as possible, stemming the tide of illegal migration and doing “these things in a manner consistent with our laws and values as Americans.”
He laid out a 14-prong approach that will be coordinated governmentwide by Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with Ron Vitiello, deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, working within DHS. The prongs include new processing centers; Spanish-speaking case management staff; expedited background checks; beds, food and drinks for the children; and health examinations.
New border agents are being transferred from less active sites, and the Justice Department is reassigning immigration judges to handle the new cases by teleconferencing, Johnson said. Any reports of abuse of the arrivals are being referred to the inspector general’s office. “The American Red Cross is providing blankets and other supplies and, through their Restoring Family Links program, is coordinating calls between children in the care of DHS and families anxious about their well-being,” Johnson said.
A 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush requires that such underage arrivals be transferred to the Health and Human Services Department, lawmakers noted, though the illegal immigrants are also served notice to report to court. So far, Fugate noted, his team has not been able to achieve the 72-hour deadline in all cases.
Johnson also stressed that the department must “juggle the other balls,” meaning national security and border security. President Obama has taken the subject up with the president of Mexico and is providing an additional $161.5 million in aid to the Central American Region.
Johnson has met with his own counterparts in Central America “to address the underlying conditions…that promote mass exodus,” he said. He also vowed to keep Congress informed.
The key to the law enforcement challenge, he added, is to track down the “money trail” of professional smugglers who exploit parents and children with misleading promises of “permisos,” or free passes to residency, for the children if the parents pay $3,000 to $4,000 to put their kids on dangerous trains and buses. In a TV and radio public relations effort, DHS is spreading the word that Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative does not apply to new arrivals.
Johnson, who said he first asked his staff to prepare the plan in April, penned a personnel letter in Spanish and English, “which I hope has now been read by a million or more,” he said, stressing that “sending your child to travel illegally into the United States is not the solution,” and explaining that the DACA program applies only to families who applied by 2007.
Asked whether resources were adequate, Vitiello said his agents are working overtime, that he was in Texas on Friday and “the leadership on the ground are adequately staffed, even better than at this time last year.”
Ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the “problem is not limited to one presidency, and is not exclusive to the U.S.A.” He said the solution must be governmentwide, and he criticized Republican “demagoguery” on the immigration issue.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said, “I don’t see the administration doing anything about the problem,” expressing regret that the southern border fence was discontinued in 2009 before completion. “Why not just clean these children up and put them on a bus and send them back to Guatemala?” he asked. Johnson said the law doesn’t permit it. “Well, Obamacare was supposed to be implemented in two years, but that doesn’t mean it is. Should the president issue an executive order to supersede the law?” Rogers asked. Johnson said, “The last time I checked an executive order can’t supersede a law.”
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said the whole problem “can be laid at the feet of President Obama,” referring to his DACA policy. She said the aid money being sent would be better spent in U.S. inner cities. “Why doesn’t he just call out the National Guard?” she asked.
“There are limits on the Guard,” Johnson said, citing the posse comitatus restrictions on using the military for domestic law enforcement, and other Pentagon demands, including responding to hurricane season.
In the end, Johnson said, “I believe we will stem this tide.”
Chairman McCaul said he knows Johnson “didn’t create the problem, he inherited it, and is working hard to resolve it.”