Ty Johnson | Valley Morning Star
One Republican Congressman called for more border fence construction while another suggested suspending foreign aid to Mexico and Central America during a heated House Committee on Homeland Security hearing in Washington, D.C. Tuesday where lawmakers discussed the growing crisis in the Rio Grande Valley posed by an influx of unaccompanied child immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson held fast amidst questioning of his agency’s handling of the situation. Other witnesses included Federal Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Chief Ronald D. Vitiello.
While Republicans blame the immigration policies of President Barack Obama for the influx, the administration says it’s being exacerbated by slow immigration courts and misinformation spread by profit-hungry human smugglers in Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, said it’s a lack of fencing in the Rio Grande Valley that has made it the epicenter of the nation’s undocumented immigrant crisis.
Rogers suggested that fencing like that in San Diego would help keep immigrants from entering the United States illegally, though he seemed unaware of the amount of border fencing already in place in Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
“We don’t have a fence down there and that’s why,” he said in his second red-faced address in four days of talks about DHS and its role in combating the crisis.
On June 20, he angrily questioned whether terrorists could take advantage of the situation while Border Patrol agents are “changing diapers and warming formula” — language he again used Tuesday.
Amidst calls for more discussions and aid for the immigrants’ home countries from Democrats, including ranking member Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi and U.S. Rep. Filemon B. Vela, Rogers said he would like for dialogue to center solely on deportation.
“Why aren’t we bussing them back?” he asked. “I think what you ought to do is ask Guatemala where they want these kids dropped off.”
Johnson reminded Rogers of a 2008 law signed by George W. Bush that made special requirements for unaccompanied and undocumented children encountered near the border, but Rogers brushed it off by commenting on how long implementation of the Affordable Care Act was taking.
Speaking later, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Michigan, pushed for a much more stern foreign policy response, calling for aid to be cut off to Mexico and Central America and for the United States to reassess or suspend its trade agreements with the countries.
Miller said Mexico was “complicit” in the smuggling of children across the American border as most immigrants trek across the country’s porous southern border and pay smugglers to reach the United States.
While she attempted to blame Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy for the crisis, others at the hearing noted that order deferred action only for children who were already in the country.
Still, the misinformation along the smuggling routes is stoking rumors that the United States is offering some form of refuge to displaced immigrants and parents continue to send their children on perilous journeys to the north.
Border Patrol agents apprehend them when they cross the border — sometimes easily as immigrants run toward agents believing it is their best shot at amnesty — and children found to be without parents are screened by U.S. Coast Guard medical personnel.
CBP is legally obligated to hand over these unaccompanied children to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of finding they are alone — a benchmark that Johnson said the agency was not meeting.
DHSS sends those children off to live with relatives or others in the country with a notice to appear in immigration court — effectively an indictment requiring their appearance at a hearing sometimes scheduled more than a year away.
Those notices are likely the “permisos” that immigrants send word home about, their legitimacy bolstered by smugglers looking to profit off the false hope of desperate immigrants fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Guatemala to attempt to stem the tide of immigrants at its source on June 20, the same day the Obama administration announced half a dozen new programs in Central America to help those nations repatriate their citizens and enhance policing efforts to reduce crime.
Vela, who last week called for more aid in Mexico and Central America, said he saw the situation at the border as a trifecta of crises in Central America, within the U.S. immigration courts and with immigration reform efforts, which have ground to a halt since the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill nearly a year ago.
Vela noted the sentiments GOP mega-donor and kingmaker Sheldon G. Adelson expressed in a recent op-ed in Politico Magazine where he called for the establishment of paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
Vela said those views — not the ones of tea party Republicans like Miller and Rogers — were signs that extremist views concerning border security and immigration reform were wilting.
“There are some tea party extremists in the Republican party who happen to sit on the committee that just have views that are very extreme,” he said. “Those are the voices that you’re hearing calling for more fencing, which we strongly object to, and ... for all practical purposes, eliminating our trading relationship with our nation’s second-largest trading partner.”
Vela was particularly critical of Rogers’ suggestion about fencing, explaining that reports he has heard have shown immigrants “walking straight through the bridge and turning themselves in,” throughout the Valley’s ports of entry.
Vela said while he believes CBP likely needs more manpower at its processing centers — the Fort Brown Border Patrol Station was at double capacity last week — the responses from Vitiello have him convinced that Border Patrol has enough resources to handle the situation.