Since October, 52,000 unaccompanied children have made the perilous journey to the United States, some suffering psychological or physical abuse in the hands of smugglers, others having been sold into the sex trade. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said at today’s House Committee on Homeland Security hearing that Border Patrol is encountering roughly 350 people crossing into the U.S. per day—an unprecedented influx that patrol stations cannot handle and a problem which shows no signs of abating.
“This is a crisis that has been in the making for years,” Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said during his opening statement. “The Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. government as a whole, has been slow to act, turning a blind eye to the warning signs.”
While there was consensus among committee members that the safety of children comes first in addressing the issue, when it came to identifying the root causes of the problem, Democrats and Republicans were divided.
Republicans, including Chairman McCaul, mostly laid out three factors that have contributed to the problem: Obama’s executive actions like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, lax enforcement policies, and Congress’ talk of comprehensive immigration reform.
“It is beyond dispute that such a narrative shapes behavior and encourages people to come to our country illegally,” McCaul said. “In fact, newspapers in El Salvador and Honduras seem to be encouraging youth to head to the United States based on these policies. And recent internal DHS surveys of these children reveal that more than 70% believe they are going to stay in the country.”
Democrats pushed back, however, claiming that stipulations in DACA and the Senate’s immigration bill wouldn’t even apply to the recent surge of illegal immigrants. Rather, the conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras must be so dire (and somehow drastically different than in the recent past), they are simply coming to the U.S. looking for a safe haven.
Johnson agreed, stating numerous times that the principal reason the children are coming is because of the conditions in their countries of origin. Secondarily, however, he said that smuggling organizations are creating a misinformation campaign about the legal situation in the U.S. “The smuggling organizations have an incentive to induce these kids to have their families pay money to smuggle them up here,” he said.
The DHS secretary also laid out a 14-point initiative designed to process the influx of unaccompanied children and stem the increased tide of illegal migration. The steps range from opening up channels of communication with senior government officials in Central America to adding more resources along the border and at detention facilities. He also discussed efforts to intensify public affairs campaigns to communicate the dangers of the journey and emphasize that there are no free passes, or “permisos,” once they arrive.
In responding to the many suggestions put forth about what the U.S. should do about the problem now, Johnson went no further than saying all legal options are open to consideration. Talk of sending the National Guard to the border has gained steam in recent days. While not outright rejecting the idea, he did caution that there are limitations on the use of the Guard.
Johnson will travel to Nogales, Arizona tomorrow where he’ll visit CBP facilities and get a first-hand look at the government-wide response to the flood of unaccompanied children across the border.