AUSTIN -- Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott painted a bleak picture of the situation facing thousands of undocumented and unaccompanied children apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol forces after being smuggled illegally across the Texas-Mexico border.
"What you see basically is a massive operation that is moving thousands of people," Abbott told KVUE on Friday after meeting with law enforcement authorities in the Texas border town of Weslaco. "During the month of May on average there were about a thousand people apprehended per day. Two days ago it spiked up to 15,000 people in one single day."
Abbott described seeing holding cells five yards wide and ten yards deep holding as many as 30 people at Weslaco facility, where arrivals are held after being inspected for physical injuries or illnesses. Asked whether the children should be immediately returned to their home country, as suggested by some Republicans in Congress, Abbott pointed the finger at the administration.
"What must be done is for the federal government and Barack Obama to send a message that stops enticing children to risk their lives and sometimes lose their lives coming to America in a way that is illegal, that will only force them to be sent back and repatriated to the country from which they came," said Abbott, who blames the president's 2012 announcement of policies granting limited legal options to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children before 2007.
"We've heard that firsthand from people who came here who said it to the Border Patrol that the reason why they were coming here was because they thought the president told them that they could come here without any kind of legal consequences," said Abbott.
Many of the children are fleeing desperate circumstances in Central America, and human smugglers have a financial interest in spreading misinformation to entice families into paying for the illegal crossing. Many are intentionally seeking out border authorities after crossing, which has raised the question of whether the core issue is one of border security or refugees.
"This is what I would call an enticement issue," said Abbott, who related harsh accounts of the treatment of children by cartel traffickers.
"I've heard stories about children who had their ears cut off or had their fingers cut off by the cartel members who are trafficking them here," said Abbott. "I heard another story about a quadriplegic child who was dumped off on the Texas side of the Rio Grande River just on the ground, helpless, unable to move whatsoever."
On Friday morning, a group of conservative business and faith community leaders gathered in Austin to participate in a panel discussion calling for comprehensive immigration reform. Many continue to advocate for a pathway to legal status -- not necessarily citizenship -- for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants believed to be in the U.S. already. Asked whether the time has come for such reform, Abbott said the current crisis emphasizes a familiar reply.
"That's exactly why you see so many people say that before we can talk about other details of immigration reform, the federal government must stand up and secure the border," said Abbott. Pressed whether he would support a pathway to legal status if the president were successful in meeting Republican requirements for a secure border, Abbott demurred.
"It is nothing more than a hypothetical, because we can't assume that the president will do that. The president has been saying this all along, only to make the problem even worse," said Abbott.
"It has been known by the administration, it has been known by the Border Patrol, it has been known by federal officials that this problem was coming," said Abbott. "Only now over the past month has it been exposed, but this has been known six months or twelve months before. Even the federal government was taking out advertisements six months ago to deal with escorts to help the people who were coming here."
"So we see a federal that on the one hand acts like it's trying to secure the border, but on the other hand is causing the problems that we're dealing with here today," continued Abbott. "So you can understand why Texans and Americans have great distrust in the Obama administration being able to fix the problem."
Outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom Abbott hopes to succeed as the Republican party's gubernatorial nominee, announced last week the state would allocate $1.3 million a week in emergency funding to the Texas Department of Public Safety for border security efforts in response to the crisis.
The weekly price tag is roughly equivalent to the cost of a 30-day special session, which state Sen. Wendy Davis, Abbott's Democratic opponent in the race for governor, called for last week. The suggestion was similarly made by several Tea party members of the Texas Legislature.
"The only purpose to have a special session for this was to ensure that we had the funding to provide the Texas Department of Public Safety officials' presence on the border," said Abbott, who suggested the emergency funding announced by Perry settled the issue. "We do have ongoing efforts, and I'm part of those efforts, to ensure that we get reimbursement from the federal government to get any money that the State of Texas comes out of pocket."
"This is a federal government issue and a federal government-caused problem, and we expect them to pay for it," Abbott added.
Asked what metrics should be used to determine when the border has reached a level of security considered acceptable enough to move forward with broader immigration reform talk, Abbott was nonspecific.
"You should be looking for a decrease in the cross-border activity, point one. Point two, you'll see where they're coming from. Again, this isn't people who are migrant farm workers from Mexico. These are people who are coming from far-away lands because of the impression they have that the border was open. Once we see that problem subside, we know that progress is being made."