The nation's top homeland security official on Tuesday defended his department's handling of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border from Mexico, turning aside Republican demands for a National Guard presence there even as officials predict the surge will continue into next year.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson outlined to the House Homeland Security Committee a series of measures he said would address the issue, from working to dismantle smuggling operations to launching a public relations campaign in Central American urging parents not to send their children north.
"I believe we will stem this tide," Johnson testified.
Over 47,000 unaccompanied children _ mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras _ have crossed the U.S. border this year, with a high concentration landing in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehend about 250 children a day, and CBP officials estimate that 150,000 children might cross the border next year.
Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, lambasted President Barack Obama's immigration policies and blamed the administration for what both parties describe as a humanitarian crisis.
"I personally believe this administration's policies have contributed to this problem, and have encouraged more people to come," McCaul said. Reading earlier from a prepared statement, he said, "The president needs to immediately send the National Guard to the Southwest border to deal with this crisis."
While open to suggestions, Johnson said, he isn't currently considering sending the National Guard to assist with border security.
The White House declined Tuesday to say how many children Customs and Border Protection had caught and released thus far.
"I think we can all stipulate that that number is too high," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in the daily briefing. "And that's why you have seen an investment _ a surge, in fact _ of resources by this administration to try to address what is a large and growing problem along our southern border."
On Capitol Hill, Customs and Border Protection Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello told lawmakers that his agents have the necessary resources to handle the children.
"We are adequately staffed and even better staffed than we were this time last year," Vitiello said.
Vitiello, Johnson and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate said their agencies already had beefed up staff along the southwest border of Texas.
Border patrol stations, Army bases and shelters operated by nonprofit organizations now house thousands of children. The Health and Human Services Department takes custody of the children after three days and attempts to place them either with parents already in the United States, long-term foster care or through deportation proceedings. Many children are reunited with parents, Johnson said.
Smugglers called "coyotes" lead many unaccompanied children across the border and "are creating a misinformation campaign" about the expectations of American citizenship, Johnson said, emphasizing that the children crossing the border have no path to citizenship.
"Department of Homeland Security, together with Department of Justice, has added personnel and resources to the investigation, prosecution and dismantling of the smuggling organizations that are facilitating border crossings," Johnson said in his opening remarks. He said 60 additional criminal investigators and support staff members were being added to the Houston and San Antonio offices to investigate smuggling operations.
The Obama administration intensified its efforts last week to deter Central Americans from traveling to the United States. Vice President Joe Biden flew to Guatemala to speak with Central American officials and announced that the United States would offer the countries, in total, $255 million in programs to help repatriate detainees, improve security and prosecute gang violence.
The State Department launched a public affairs campaign in Spanish media in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to highlight the dangers of immigrating through Mexico. Johnson plans to travel to Nogales, Ariz., on Wednesday to visit one of the facilities where unaccompanied children are sheltered.
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., criticized Johnson and Obama for spending taxpayers' money in Central America.
"Instead of increasing funding _ hundreds of millions of dollars that the president has called for _ I think we need to stop more aid," Miller said. "We would be better off spending this money in the inner cities of America."
Like many of her Republican colleagues, Miller told Johnson to put the National Guard at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Critical committee members seemed flummoxed by the increase of children, saying the economy and security in Central America had not suddenly worsened. Republicans pointed out what they described as the president's soft rhetoric on immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Johnson cited poverty and gang violence as major reasons that children choose to immigrate without their parents.
While violence and poverty aren't new to Central American nations, population growth is. The populations of Guatemala and Honduras increased 22 percent and 17 percent, respectively, from 2004 to 2012, according to the most recent figures from the World Bank.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.
By Patrick Gillespie
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Alaska Dispatch Publishing