Gov. Rick Perry told U.S. House committee members meeting in this border town Thursday that the most humanitarian response to tens of thousands of children from Central America surging across the border was to send them back as quickly as possible.
The Republican governor also criticized the federal government, calling for more resources, including National Guard and more Border Patrol agents, to saturate the Rio Grande Valley and act as a deterrent.
"Some may think that allowing them to stay is a more humane option. I assure you, it is not," Perry told the House Homeland Security Committee, whose members were gathered in an auditorium at South Texas College in McAllen. "Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals to undertake the same life-threatening journey."
The governor added that he thought the surge of children, more than 52,000 this fiscal year alone, was "manufactured to some degree by the drug cartels."
Perry said that if politicians didn't secure the border, "the American people will address this in a number of ways, electorally and otherwise."
He also took note of the angry reaction to a plan — or rumors of a plan — to move immigrants detained in Texas to other states.
The tensest episode happened Tuesday in the Riverside County city of Murrieta, where about 100 protesters waving American flags blocked a convoy of three buses carrying 140 detainees, many of them children, from reaching the Border Patrol facility.
"You're seeing the reaction in Georgia and in California, Pennsylvania, and I think you're going to see that in a lot of places around the country," Perry said.
One of the committee members, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), said the surge of children was being portrayed as a darker portent than it actually was.
"This is not a national security crisis," she said. "This is a humanitarian crisis."
Jackson Lee said the detained children she had encountered "simply want to be free from the murderous conditions from which they flee" and that a massive deportation policy for children is "not a humane thing to do."
Most of the children have come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, three countries with unusually high homicide rates, with Honduras considered the most violent in the world.
But Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the committee chairman, said that according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border could jump to more than 100,000 next year.
"Our military bases are turning into refugee camps," he said. "I never thought I'd see this in the United States of America."
Several of the committee members called for more law enforcement and even National Guard resources to be placed along the Texas-Mexico border.
Perry said that from El Paso to California, there were about 17 Border Patrol agents per mile, compared with about seven per mile from El Paso east to Brownsville, Texas. He called for working more closely with Mexico and the Central American countries to stem the tide of child immigrants.
But California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat whose district includes part of the Bay Area, told Perry that more Border Patrol agents might not be the answer when so many of the young immigrants are simply turning themselves in.
"We were told this was not a matter of catching them," he said. "These children are running into open arms. Wouldn't additional Border Patrol agents simply increase the number of arms these children are running into?"
The exchange between Swalwell and Perry served up the only testy moments of the hearing, with the congressman trying to finish his questions and the governor interrupting to say he knew where Swalwell was going.
The visibly annoyed Perry told Swalwell that with the proper resources, the undocumented immigrants wouldn't get to cross into the U.S to surrender. The conversation about now-stalled immigration reform both of them would like to see "will never happen until we secure the border," the governor said.
The number of children making the journey from Central American communities through Mexico to the U.S. border has risen dramatically despite the dangers from drug cartels, human traffickers and the punishing terrain, including after the migrants cross into Texas.
One of the speakers, Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. "Eddie" Guerra, noted the decomposed body of a Guatemalan boy found June 15 in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. Guerra said the boy was 11, though there are reports that he may have been 15. The sheriff also noted that officials responded to 19 immigrant deaths in Hidalgo County in 2012, and that the figure jumped to 25 last year and stands at 14 so far this year.
"The hardest to take are the deaths of children," he said.
Guerra said the surge in undocumented immigrants had been a challenge for law enforcement but that the children and families turning themselves in at the border are guilty only of the crime of entering the country illegally.
"The vast majority are not committing any state crime," he said. "The threat to law enforcement is not coming from these immigrants but from criminal elements that have taken advantage of them."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times