Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday that the surge of people illegally crossing the southwestern border has become such a distraction for immigration agents that the border is now less secure than at any other time in recent years.
With Congress out of session this week, lawmakers have traveled to the border to get a firsthand look at the families and unaccompanied children who are trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, chiefly into southern Texas, hoping to gain a foothold in the U.S.
More than 70 percent of them believe they will be able to stay in the country, according to the latest internal government statistics, said Michael T. McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. The Texas Republican said that presumption is often accurate, given President Obama’s various nondeportation policies and the time it takes for immigration courts to process illegal immigrants who are not from Mexico.
But thousands of the children do have bona fide refugee claims that will earn them legal status, and others are gaining special juvenile visas allowing them to stay, said several Democrats who were making their own trips to the border.
All sides said they are searching for solutions to the surge.
About 10,000 children traveling without their parents are apprehended each month, and nearly that many illegal immigrants traveling as families also are being caught.
“The border between the U.S. and Mexico is less secure than at any point in the recent past,” Mr. Perry testified to the House Homeland Security Committee, holding a field hearing in McAllen, Texas. “Secure this border, Mr. President. Finally, address this issue and secure this border.”
The White House has declined, though Mr. Obama is slated to be in Texas next week to raise money for Democrats.
“The trip he’s taking to Texas is effectively for a different purpose,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
He said Mr. Obama “has a very good sense of what’s happening on the border” and accused Mr. Perry of playing politics by urging a visit. Mr. Earnest said Mr. Perry could be more helpful if he pressured fellow Republicans to pass a bill legalizing illegal immigrants.
“He could probably pretty useful. I hear he’s a pretty persuasive fellow,” Mr. Earnest said.
Mr. Obama hasn’t visited the Texas border since 2011, when he visited a park abutting the border where a huge Mexican flag was visible on the other side. Mr. Obama used that trip to mock Republicans for demanding more border security, saying they wouldn’t be satisfied until he constructed a moat with alligators.
Despite Mr. Obama’s absence, the administration has been well-represented, particularly by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Mr. Johnson has made repeated trips to the border to get a handle on the immigrant surge and will travel next week to Guatemala to urge Central American leaders to do more to stem the flow of migrants.
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.