There's no question there's a crisis. In 2011, some 4,000 unaccompanied children were caught after crossing into the United States. In 2012, the number rose to more than 13,000 children. Last year, that number hit 38,759; and already this year, the toll exceeds 52,000, with most minors coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Not all of the kids make it. Interim Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra ticked off the sad numbers. In 2012, his department saw 19 immigrant deaths. In 2013, it found 25 bodies. "This year, we have already responded to 14 immigrant deaths," he told the panel. "The hardest to take are the deaths of children."
On July 1, angry protesters dissuaded federal officials from busing 140 detainees into Murrieta, California. No doubt supporters of "comprehensive immigration reform" want these angry individuals to be seen as the face of their opposition.
But the situation is so ugly that many conservative Republicans sound like bleeding hearts. "It's a humanitarian crisis with respect to the way our facilities are overtaxed. Last week, we had 2,000 children in a detention center built for 400 adults," Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, told me Thursday over the phone as he headed home to Corpus Christi after the hearing. Children were sleeping on floors, he said. "This is the United States. We ought to be able to do better than that."
Perry, as you may recall, got to the left of Mitt Romney during his brief run in the 2012 presidential primary. During a Florida debate, Romney criticized Perry for signing a 2001 bill that allowed undocumented students to pay reduced in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. In a primary election famous for chasing Republicans deeper to the right, Perry did not back down. "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own," he told Romney, "I don't think you have a heart."
Perry showed oodles of sympathy for the detainees. They're victims, he said, who have been used by "vile individuals." Some Republicans want to blame the surge of border crossings on President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but Perry made a point of blaming criminal cartels and human traffickers who cynically have convinced otherwise-law-abiding families that this is the ideal time to risk their children's lives by smuggling them across the border.
If you have any doubt about what a great country this is, consider the risks that others hazard just for the chance to come here illegally.
Perry also showed steel. The more Central Americans who believe that "you get here, you can stay here," he warned, the more people will come. "It will be a deluge," Perry predicted. "After El Salvador and Honduras," he added, there will be new surges from other countries.
For his part, Swalwell used the hearing to mock the notion that the surge has anything to do with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which halted deportations for some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. If that were the catalyst, he argued, the boom would have been bigger in 2012, when Obama announced the idea. Rampant crime has driven this wave of immigrants to the border, he said.
Good point. But I counter that Central Americans are smart enough to know that if they can pay to smuggle their children beyond the border, they've bought years for them in the United States. He doesn't disagree. Everyone knows, he said, that a child apprehended at the border will become "a low-priority removal."
During the hearing, Perry asked Swalwell point-blank whether he thinks unaccompanied minors should be sent back home. "Yes," Swalwell answered, "on a case-by-case basis."
I ask: Just what does that mean?
I think it means: Not really. Swalwell explained that if it is possible to send unaccompanied minors home without putting them in danger -- and in a way that works for their home country -- then he is on board. The United States can't just bus children south of the border. Quoth Swalwell: "Nobody has presented me with a good way to return a Guatemalan teenager to Guatemala."
Actually, the Obama White House is pushing to change the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, signed by President George W. Bush, to ease deportations hampered by the 2008 law.
Could Swalwell support this change? "I'm open to that," he answered cautiously.
The administration also wants $2 billion to speed up deportations of the unaccompanied minors Swalwell thinks are so hard to send home. Farenthold was enthusiastic. "The president basically said, 'Send them back,'" the Republican congressman told me. "I'm with him on that."