Perry: US must send message by sending children home KVUE / Mark Wiggins
McALLEN, Texas -- Under the setting Texas sun, a busload of smuggled families and children turned themselves over to border agents while KVUE's sister station, WFAA-TV, news camera rolled.
For those who have made the trip from South America, the price is estimated to be between $5,000 and $8,000 -- and possible death or assault -- to escape a world of even worse violence and desperation.
Just beyond the fence, many thousands more are coming, and lawmakers are looking for answers.
"My message to President Obama is to secure this border, Mr. President," Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) said Thursday in McAllen.
Testifying before a field hearing of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Thursday, Perry said the only way to stop the flow is to send the children home.
"Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals to undertake this very dangerous and life-threatening journey,"
said Perry. If that happens, he said, "Then a humanitarian crisis will turn into a monumental tragedy."
"A massive deportation policy for children and a mandatory detaining for children is not a humane thing to do," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the committee's ranking Democrat. Urging compassion, the Houston representative said many South American parents related being told their children would be killed if they didn't join a gang.
"What would any of us do as parents?" Jackson Lee asked. "We would take them and we would flee."
Without citing any specific supporting evidence, Perry suggested the cartels are deliberately causing the crisis to distract resources from stopping other illegal operations. After the governor ordered $1.3 million a week in emergency funding for the Department of Public Safety and Texas law enforcement to crack down on the cartels, the increased DPS presence is visible all over the Rio Grande Valley.
"Our military bases are turning into refugee camps. I never thought I would see this in the United States of America," committee chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said during his opening remarks.
McCaul and other Republicans took the opportunity to criticize the president for lax border enforcement and immigration policies. Both attribute to the increased number of undocumented immigrants surrendering themselves to border agents under the false impression that they will eventually be allowed to remain in America.
"The message these policies are sending is if you come, you can stay," said McCaul.
"I talked to a young El Salvadorian boy and asked him why he came here," Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) said during an at times contentious exchange with Perry. "He said he traveled alone, and he said he came here for a better life. He wasn't holding an invitation in his hand from President Obama."
Democrats and Republicans generally agreed on the necessity of increased federal funding and resources for border security efforts, as well as on the importance of enlisting the cooperation of the Mexican and South American governments in addressing the problem.
"A carrot and a stick may be needed on this," said Perry. The Texas governor said his state reached out to the federal government for help securing the border in 2012, but received no response.
"Had we addressed this diplomatically, had we addressed it [with] El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala and in Mexico, as well as on the border with the securitization of this border, we would most likely not be here today," said Perry.
How porous the border actually is has been a source of disagreement. While Perry and Republicans insisted the border was less secure than ever, Democrats contended the fact that most of the influx of undocumented immigrants are immediately surrendering to law enforcement proves the opposite.
Citing insufficient manpower among the U.S. Border Patrol, Republicans uniformly called upon the president to deploy more U.S. National Guard assets to the region.
"It militarizes the border," countered Jackson Lee. "And I don't know that we have asked how that is an answer to children."
"From El Paso to California there are 17 Border Patrol agents per mile dedicated to that region of the United States," argued Perry. "From El Paso to Brownsville it is seven."
Yet even among the dischord, there were a few signs of unity in purpose.
"As we are on the edge of the Fourth of July," said Jackson Lee. "A time that reflects our ancestors fleeing from persecution and then announcing the greatness of this nation, then are we not able to address the humanitarian crisis? I think we are."
"This is a historic moment," said Perry. "This is an opportunity for us as Americans, not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans, to deal with an issue that the world is watching."