President Barack Obama deserves blame for much of the misery in overcrowded illegal immigrant facilities on the Southwest border, a conservative Texas congressman told CQ Roll Call Wednesday.
But "instant deportation," Republican Blake Farenthold said, is no answer to the crisis.
The second-term congressman is part of a group of lawmakers taking a firsthand look this week at Texas facilities that have been stretched to the breaking point in recent weeks as thousands of Central American children and mothers have streamed across the border seeking asylum.
The sudden surge of young immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is a direct result of the president's rhetoric on immigration, Farenthold said.
"He telegraphed a message that if you're a kid, you're gonna get to stay," Farenthold explained.
But the Corpus Christi lawmaker, who before 2012 redistricting represented the area now at the center of national scrutiny, is also frustrated with many of his constituents — and even with some of his colleagues — who call for instant deportation of "alien" children.
"We can't just take them to the town square in Guatemala and kick them off the bus," Farenthold said. "I also make the point that, if I were to send my child on a journey this perilous, child protective services would be knocking on my door trying to take away custody of my children.
"Here's the thing with border security," he continued. "Let's assume it's 100 percent secure, we catch anybody who crosses the border within a mile of the border, alright? Even if we capture a child, we still have to do something with that child."
The "national security" and "humanitarian crisis" elements of the child migrant border surge are different, according to Farenthold — a distinction that needs to be clear for both Republicans and Democrats as Congress reconvenes next week with just 16 legislative work days scheduled before the August recess.
Farenthold is part of a congressional delegation led by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., that is touring detention facilities and talking with government officials along the Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S.-Mexico border. Also along for the fact-finding trip, according to a Judiciary Committee aide, are Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; and Democratic Reps. Joe Garcia, Fla., and Shelia Jackson Lee, Texas.
On Thursday, the Homeland Security Committee will convene a field hearing in McAllen on the crisis at the border. Among the witnesses expected to testify is Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Members also visited the area over the past weekend, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Farenthold hopes lawmakers go back to Washington, D.C., prepared to tackle a specific legislative response to the issue, and that Democrats in particular "take the word back to their colleagues that we cannot wait until we can build consensus on comprehensive immigration reform to deal with this problem."
Fear that a congressional fix will fall prey to the political debate surrounding immigration more broadly is shared by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who has been appointed by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to head up a GOP working group to inform and advise the House Republican Conference on how to respond to the crisis.
"I just returned from a trip to South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley," she said in a statement Wednesday morning. "I saw firsthand the humanitarian efforts that are underway by Customs and Border Patrol agents, local officials and community nonprofits. ... Throughout my visit one message was clear — please don't call this an immigration reform issue, this is a humanitarian crisis and we need help now."
But the issue has been inextricably linked to conversations about immigration overhaul, especially in light of Obama's speech on Monday in which he announced he would take executive action on his own if Congress won't act on larger reforms.
Republicans say the crisis on the border is more proof the president isn't enforcing existing immigration law — and therefore can't be trusted to enforce any potential overhaul.
At a hearing on the child migrant border crisis on Capitol Hill last week, Goodlatte said in prepared remarks that the Obama administration's "failure to secure our borders, mitigate threats to national security, or enforce our immigration laws only undermines Congress's ability to reform our immigration laws."
Meanwhile, Democrats counter that the crisis highlights the need for a comprehensive fix.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill., released a statement following a letter Obama sent to congressional leaders Monday in which he requested emergency appropriations to bolster resources at the border — and expressed a desire to give the Homeland Security department "additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children."
"There is an important lesson in this: If you fail to institute a safe, legal and orderly immigration process for several decades, chaos ensues," said Gutiérrez, who has fought hard, on both sides of the aisle, to overhaul the immigration code in 113th Congress. "The same Republicans who have blocked immigration reform and are fanning rumors with claims that President Obama is not enforcing immigration laws and that the U.S. has 'open borders' are now saying we need to change our border policies to deport children and families without delay.
"You cannot have it both ways," Gutierrez continued. "If we had a legal and orderly process for immigration in place, we would have better control over the current situation."
In Washington next week, there's no telling what, if anything, the House GOP will do to address the issue head-on.
The first order of business could be a review of the president's request for emergency funding, a task falling to appropriators but also likely to fall to Granger's working group (though Granger is, incidentally, the chairwoman of the subcommittee on state and foreign operations).
As for whether leadership might bring up specific legislation, Farenthold predicted that could depend on how the fact-finding visit and field hearing proceed on Wednesday and Thursday.
"Speaker Boehner was very insistent that we have this Homeland Security field hearing down here," Farenthold told CQ Roll Call. "He basically told [Homeland Security Chairman Michael] McCaul, 'You really need to do this.' So I think it indicates that he gets the facts and understands the problem."
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