At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Tuesday, members said the administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was the primary reason for the more than doubling of the number of unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the U.S. from the previous year.
"I personally think this administration's policies have contributed to this problem," said committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas. "This problem will continue until we provide a deterrence, a strong message that if you do come, you can't stay."
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was surging personnel and resources to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where the majority of the attempted crossings have occurred, and building a number of new detention facilities to house detainees as a means of deterrence.
Some 52,000 unaccompanied children have come into the U.S. since October of last year, more than twice last year's 24,000. Republicans have sought to blame administration's policies, particularly DACA, as encouraging parents to send their children on the assumption they'll be welcomed with open arms.
The administration has acknowledged that the 2012 DACA program, which allows work permits to those who came illegally to the U.S. as children and have been in the country continually for at least seven years, has been the source of some confusion.
But Johnson said he has begun a widespread information campaign to combat to warn parents that their children would not be welcomed with "permisos" -- a free pass -- should they come illegally to the U.S.
"I also believe smuggling organizations are creating a misinformation campaign about the legal situation in this country," he said. "It's in their interest to create that misinformation. It is up to us to correct the record on what is available and what is not to those crossing the border."
Indeed, more than half of the children detained at the border are placed with a parent inside the U.S., and more than half of the remainder with another member of their family. Committee Republicans said they were skeptical that the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for tracking those children while their deportation notices are pending, was ensuring they returned for their status hearings.
"I'd like to know what you all have been doing to stop the flood, because I believe the administration policy is what's invited these kids to come here," said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga. "These kids come here illegally, they're lawbreakers already. And the president has been very public in that he's not going to deport."
The secretary said he thought DACA was not primarily to blame for the increase in unaccompanied children, adding that they overwhelmingly told him and border agents that the conditions in their home countries was the primary reason they decided to risk traveling more than 1,000 miles to try to reach the U.S. -- not administration policy or partisan fights over immigration reform in Congress.
"All of these are lost on the families of those unaccompanied children," said Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas. "Conditions have to be really bad, unimaginably bad" for parents to risk their kids.
Last week, the White House announced it would provide additional funding to social programs and improving the reintegration capabilities in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the three countries where about three-quarters of the unaccompanied children are from.
And top Republicans, including McCaul and House Speaker John Boehner, have called for the president to order in the national guard.
"Securing the border is a responsibility of the federal government," he said. "States should not need to protect what is in the federal government's role in our constitution."
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