WASHINGTON â President Obama needs to let people in Central America know it's not acceptable to send their children to enter the United States illegally, members of a congressional committee said on Tuesday.
And it would help if he would encourage Mexico to close its southern border, too, they said during a hearing regarding the flood of illegal alien children arriving daily in Texas and Arizona from points mostly in Central America.
The Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, questioned Department of Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson about why not more has been done already.
"I think that this humanitarian crisis can be laid directly at the feet of President Obama as a result of his DACA policy in 2012. And so I hope that our hearing today doesn't just point out the problem, which is very, very bad, getting worse, no end in sight, but I hope that we can coalesce around some actual options and solutions," Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said.
She and other House Republicans are pushing for Obama to call up the National Guard to help overwhelmed U.S. Border Patrol officers deal with the crisis, to which Johnson said he'd already added 115 officers.
DHS officials said they are seeking more places to house the children, who are only supposed to be held for 72 hours by Customs before being turned over to Health and Human Services to be flown throughout the country and placed in foster homes, sometimes with parents who are illegal immigrants themselves.
Though Republicans said the children should be sent back to their home countries, Johnson and other House Democrats said doing so would be inhumane and most likely the children will remain in the U.S.
But Republicans suggested the government knew about and possibly helped facilitate the crisis, taking the arguments to an entirely new level.
Republicans learned the flood of unaccompanied children, some as young as 5, from Central American nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, has more than doubled recently from 24,000 to 52,000.
And more are expected.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials estimate that more than 150,000 unaccompanied children will enter the U.S. illegally in the next year and Johnson said border officials are apprehending about 300 children daily at the Rio Grande border.
The children make the 1,000-mile trek through Mexico in groups atop trains they call the Beast. Some fall off and are injured.
Johnson suggested parents are handing over their young children by the thousands to cartels who are making about $8,000 per child to smuggle them into the U.S. Members of Congress said they are being drawn by Obama's policies of deferred action against young illegal aliens.
"As a father of five, it's unimaginable to me what would compel a parent to risk the lives of their children on such a dangerous passage, not to mention the risk of sexual assaults, exploitations and the potential to be trafficked," McCaul said.
"In the hands of smugglers, many children are traumatized, psychologically abused by their journey or worse, beaten, starved, sexually assaulted or sold into the sex trade. They are exposed to psychological abuse at the hands of the criminals," he said.
Johnson released a letter on Monday to those parents in Central America saying there are no free passes into the U.S., and that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program does not apply to children who arrive now or in the future to the U.S. To be considered for DACA, individuals must have continually resided in the U.S. for the past seven years.
But House Republicans said that Obama's DACA program is the reason for the crisis.
In fact, they asked Johnson about a government advertisement in January requesting contractors to provide escorts for 65,000 unaccompanied immigrant children. Johnson responded that he not know why the government posted the ad.
"If you knew that up to 65,000 unaccompanied children were going to be coming to this country, for Pete's sake, you should have been doing something about it. And I don't see where this administration or the Department of Homeland Security has done anything. Am I wrong?" Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., demanded of Johnson.
That announcement said the minors will arrive "with a phased approach over a period of several months to a full year," and that 25 percent will be "local ground transport, 25 percent will arrive via ICE charter and 50 percent via commercial air."
Republicans said instead of providing millions of dollars more in aid to Central American countries for climate change and social issues, the Obama administration needs to cut the funding and secure America's borders with fences.
McCaul said committee members are "gravely concerned about the safety of children no matter where they come from."
"This is a crisis," he said, "that's been in the making for years. We should have seen it coming. Few concrete actions have been taken."
He said the Obama administration first needs to acknowledge its part in making the problem, through its policies.
"What is new is a series of executive actions by the administration to grant immigration benefits to children outside the purview of the law," he said. "Such a narrative shapes behavior and encourages people to come to our country illegally."
He continued, "This administration should send an unambiguous message that those arriving will promptly be sent home."