Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson appeared before Congress today to testify on the increase in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.
The House Homeland Security Committee hosted the hearing, “Dangerous Passage: The Growing Problem of Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border,” and Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) set the tone with hisopening statement, calling it an “escalating refugee crisis.”
“Parents are handing over their young children by the thousands to cartels who are profiting by smuggling these kids to the United States,” he said. “Many are under the age of 10—including some barely old enough to walk. These children, with no parent, relative, or legal guardian, risk a perilous and sometimes fatal journey riding buses or trains from Central America via Mexico.”
Since October 2013, 52,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed into the United States from Mexico, with nearly two-thirds of those crossing through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has estimated that next year more than 150,000 unaccompanied children may attempt to cross the border, a massive increase from 2013 when 24,000 children were apprehended attempting to cross the border alone.
“When they arrive at the border, the children are simply turning themselves into the nearest border patrol agent,” McCaul said. “However, patrol stations are not set up to handle this massive and growing number of detainees—let alone children…we’ve all seen the photos of hundreds of children piled on top of each other, and the flow shows no sign of abating.”
Johnson agreed with the urgency of the situation and said that DHS is attempting to address the situation through a three-prong approach: processing the increased tide of unaccompanied children through the system as quickly as possible, stemming the increased tide of illegal migration into the Rio Grande Valley, and doing these things in a manner that’s consistent with U.S. laws and values.
Johnson further broke these three approaches into 13 different steps that DHS is taking through its various agencies. His first step was to declare a Level IV condition of readiness within all of DHS, which determines that the capacity of CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is full and that additional resources are needed. Johnson has placed a deputy chief at DHS in charge of coordinating this effort to secure additional resources.
Along with the increase in resources, DHS is adding additional capacity to processing and housing locations for the children that are apprehended. “To process the increased numbers of unaccompanied children in Texas, DHS has had to bring the children to our processing center in Nogales, Arizona, before they are sent to Health and Human Services,” Johnson explained. “We are arranging additional processing centers to handle the rise in the Rio Grande Valley.” The Department of Defense has also provided space at Lackland Air Base in Texas, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and Ventura in California to house children.
Johnson also outlined additional steps that DHS is taking to help handle the increasing number of children once they are inside the U.S., but also said that no approach would work unless the amount of people attempting to cross the border is decreased. DHS has reached out to government officials of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico to address the underlying conditions in Central America that are promoting the mass exodus. The United States is also planning to provide aid to the region, more than $200 million, to help secure it and provide for citizens who are returned there after attempting to cross the border.
Additionally, DHS is working with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to add personnel and resources to investigate, prosecute, and dismantle smuggling organizations that are facilitating border crossings into the Rio Grande Valley. “These organizations not only facilitate illegal migration across our border, they traumatize and exploit the children who are objects of their smuggling operation,” Johnson said. “We will also continue to work with our partners in Central America and Mexico to help locate, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal smuggling networks.”
DHS has also launched a public affairs campaign in Central America to warn families about the dangers children face when traveling to the United States alone, as misinformation has been spreading through the region that children who cross the border alone will be allowed to stay in America. “I have personally issued an open letter to the parents of those who are sending their children from Central America to the United States to be distributed broadly in Spanish and English to highlight the dangers of the journey and to emphasize that there are no free passes or ‘permisos’ at the other end,” Johnson explained.
Ranking committee member Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) commended Johnson’s efforts and the personal letter that he’d issued. He also asked that the committee work together to help find a solution to the surge of minors attempting to cross the border.
“Dehumanizing and labeling these kids and their parents will not yield a solution,” Thompson said. “At this time, we can use our platforms to rise to the occasion and be helpful, or we can engage in political grandstanding at the peril of young lives. It is my hope that this committee, with its strong history of bipartisanship, can choose the former and be a model for effective leadership on this matter.”
Johnson’s appearance today was the first in a series of congressional hearings on border patrol this week. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next tomorrow at 2 p.m. EDT where officials from ICE, CBP, and other stakeholders will testify on the crisis.