Continued from page 1

Lawmakers also are heading to the border. The dais at the Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday was full, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, led a group of Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. Goodlatte said he spoke with immigration agents who said most of the children have relatives in the U.S. — many in the country illegally — with whom they are trying to connect.

“The Border Patrol agents that we spoke to were pretty consistent in saying they think the best way to stop this crisis is through deterrence. They were very clear that deterrence must be the focus and there must be an end to the so-called catch-and-release policy,” Mr. Goodlatte said.

The Democrats who accompanied him said the government cannot assume all of those trying to cross are ineligible to remain.

“We learned many thousands of these children are bona fide refugees fleeing dangerous situations. They are deserving of protection under international and domestic law,” Reps. Joe Garcia of Florida, Zoe Lofgren of California and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas said in a joint statement.

“Additionally, countless others have received special immigrant juvenile status following adjudication of dependency proceedings by state judges based on findings of abuse, neglect, or abandonment by a parent,” the three Democrats said.

The Democrats also said the immigrant children were being held in “intolerable” conditions. They said they saw one 3-year-old child who had been held for 12 days and was being cared for by other preteens in a detention facility.

“The child was handed off from one preteen detainee to another as they were churned in and out of the station,” the Democrats said.

Mr. McCaul recounted his encounter with several girls whose boat overturned as they crossed the Rio Grande. They fell into the water and nearly drowned.

“These girls were traumatized, were crying, and they wanted to turn around and go back home to Guatemala,” he said.

Republicans and Democrats have debated the causes of the surge. Mr. Obama initially argued that the problem was increasing violence in Central American countries.

Although analysts agreed that violence has been heightened for several years, Republicans said that can’t explain a tremendous surge in the past few months, with apprehensions doubling.

They say the blame lies with Mr. Obama’s nondeportation policies and with smugglers’ exploitation of those policies, which suggest to Central Americans that there are few consequences to sneaking into the U.S.