WASHINGTON – How to balance between law enforcement and humanitarian needs at the U.S.-Mexico border dominated a House committee hearing Wednesday about the surge of Central American children entering the country.
“These individuals know that the administration’s policy of non-enforcement of our immigration laws presents a golden opportunity for unaccompanied minors and families with minors to come to the U.S.,most likely to be released with very little chance of ever being removed,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte,R-Va.,said at the House Judiciary Committee hearing addressing the unaccompanied children issue.
Goodlatte,like many fellow Republicans,said the Obama administration has not done enough to enforce border security as both unaccompanied minors and families,mostly from Mexico,Honduras,El Salvador and Guatemala,arrive at the border. He said many of them believe that once they arrive they will be granted a “permisos” or a requirement to appear in court,and will then be released to family members or friends.
Tom Homan,executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,said it sometimes takes years for children and families to appear in an immigration court because of a lack of immigration judges.
Lawmakers and public figures familiar with the South Texas region criticized calls for more border security and said the humanitarian needs of children who have already arrived at the border should be the priority.
Mark Seitz,bishop of the Diocese of El Paso,Texas,said the role of a “compassionate” U.S. government is to “ensure that unaccompanied migrant children receive appropriate child welfare services,legal assistance,and access to immigration protection where appropriate.”
In November,Seitz lead a delegation of Catholic bishops to Southern Mexico,El Salvador,Guatemala and Honduras to understand why unaccompanied children were migrating. The main reason,he said,is “unbearable” violent conditions.
Until these conditions can be changed,Seitz said,“Children will be showing up at our doorstep. … The fact that these children are not citizens of our country doesn’t mean that they are not human beings. They are children who have faced great trauma.”
On Monday,four House members,all Democrats,introduced a bill that would provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors and mentally disabled individuals during immigration proceedings.
Chris Crane,president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council 118,supported more enforcement.
“Enforcement must come first,” Crane said. “Improper safeguards will make the United States a magnet for millions of more migrants.”
Customs and Border Patrol expects to apprehend 90,000 children at the border this year – an increase from just over 25,000 last year.
Deputy CPB Chief Ronald Vitiello said that,although he was satisfied with the work of CBP and ICE,their resources are limited,including the number of available processing and detention centers for incoming children and families.
“Our facilities are only adequate for the short term. They were not designed to last a long time,” Vitiello said.
The Department of Homeland Security has increased CBP staffing along the Texas border by transferring 115 agents from “less active sectors,” Vitiello said in his written testimony. Most came from border areas in New Mexico,where there are not as many border crossings.
Last week Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to begin law enforcement surge operations on the Texas-Mexico border “to combat the flood of illegal immigration into the state in the absence of adequate federal resources to secure the border.” State leaders have authorized $1.3 million per week for the program.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke,D-Texas,disagreed with Perry’s “border surge” and said in an interview that the focus should be on caring for the children as they are processed.
“I really think we have more of a humanitarian crisis on our hands. Whatever we can do to provide,especially for these children who do not have a parent with them,” said O’Rourke,who represents the El Paso area. “I am a parent of three,and I can only imagine what that would be like for my sons or daughter. Let’s take care of these kids. Let’s reunite them with their families.”
Reach reporter Anna Giles at [email protected] or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.