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Alaska senators weigh in on unaccompanied minors crisis at US-Mexico border

Nathaniel Herz

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski got a firsthand look last week at the nation’s ongoing immigration crisis, as part of what she described as an “eye-opening” trip to Texas she took to see how the federal government is dealing with the 57,000 unaccompanied children from Central America who have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border since October.

Amid 90-degree heat and thick humidity in McAllen, Texas, Murkowski, a Republican, said she saw the “blank” looks, exhaustion and fatigue on the faces of the children who had been detained, as well as the spartan conditions in which they were being held.

She said she came away with a sense that the federal government should be processing the children with “greater efficiencies” and with “greater streamlining,” and skepticism about a request by President Barack Obama that Congress authorize billions in emergency spending to combat the crisis.

“The situation there is really tough right now,” Murkowski said in a phone interview Monday. “So, how can we best facilitate this while ensuring that we are a country of laws, but a country that has a humanitarian heart? I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”

Murkowski’s trip last week took her first to U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities in McAllen, which sits on the Mexican border along the Rio Grande River, and then to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where she said some children are held while the government determines whether they should be sent back to their home country or allowed to stay in the U.S.

Child immigrants from Central America have been surging to the U.S. border in recent months, arriving since October at more than twice the rate they did the previous year.

In many cases, violence and instability in Central American countries has pushed them to try to emigrate to the U.S.

Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to fund more enforcement, detention facilities, and immigration judges, but many legislators are resisting, with some saying the president’s lax immigration policies have invited parents to send their children to the U.S.

Murkowski said she was struck by the sheer number of children she saw during the first part of her visit, where she viewed a holding cell at a border station in McAllen.

“You expect to see adults, and these were not adults,” she said. “The looks were just kind of blank -- just sheer exhaustion and fatigue after a journey that most of us could not even imagine, much less taking while you were a kid.”

At a warehouse in McAllen that had been retrofitted as a holding facility to take the pressure off the detention area at the city’s border station, Murkowski said children would be placed inside chain-link fence -- “effectively, cages” --  though she added that the longer-term accommodations at Lackland Air Force Base were more comfortable.

She said she was interested to learn that federal government agencies are turning away offers of aid for the immigrants from nonprofit and faith-based groups, on the grounds that “it’s more complicated to organize all these well-intentioned people” than to put them to work.

A problem without a clear solution

Asked about whether she’d support the Obama administration’s $3.7 billion request, Murkowski responded that “some of the areas, we need to look at.”

She said most of the money Obama had requested -- nearly half -- is earmarked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to care for the unaccompanied children at the border, and suggested that more attention should be directed toward addressing the factors driving people out of Central American countries.

Murkowski also cited a 2008 law aimed at fighting human trafficking that requires the U.S. to give special review to the cases of unaccompanied Central American children who arrive at the border -- as opposed to those from Mexico, whose cases are handled more quickly.

Obama wants to change that law, though he faces opposition from some Democrats.

“The process that we have in place for unaccompanied children coming across from Mexico is one that seems to be working,” Murkowski said. “We are able to treat these young people fairly, but in a more expeditious manner -- so if we can do that, that’s something to look at.”

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said in an email that he was skeptical about granting Obama’s $3.7 billion request.

The laws that led to the current immigration crisis are outdated, “and clearly need to be changed because our immigration laws should be consistent, effective, and applied fairly,” he said.

“It’s clear that the current overall system at the border isn’t working,” he said. “That is why I have strong reservations about the president’s budget request. I think he’s asking for too much money -- it doesn’t make sense to me to throw more money at a broken system. We must fix the problem.”

Begich cited the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last year as a “serious step." Murkowski also voted for the measure, which did not clear the House of Representatives.

The bill would have doubled the number of agents along the U.S.’s southern border, and instituted an Internet-based system to help businesses determine the eligibility of their employees. It also would have provided a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants who arrived in the country illegally.

Contact Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com.