WASHINGTON, July 17 (UPI) -- A top State Department official said Thursday that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 58 percent of the immigrant minors streaming across the southern border could have a "protection concern" -- a claim that could lead to a plea for asylum.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., tried to get answers from Obama administration officials about the number of immigrant children who might seek asylum in the U.S. He couldn't get a direct response from Bruce Swartz, the deputy assistant attorney general.
After repeatedly pressing Swartz, Corker turned to Thomas Shannon, Counselor to the Secretary of State, who was also on the witness panel.
Shannon cited the UN. "I don't have the figures from the -- obviously from our own government, but the UN High Commission on Refugees, in interviews it has done, thinks that 58 percent of the migrants could have a protection concern."
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, immigrants may seek asylum within a year of arriving in the U.S. if they have suffered persecution in their home country, or fear they are going to be persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a certain social group, or for their politics.
"It appears to me we have a policy issue," said Corker. "Cartels and gangs may be taking advantage of it. It's something that's easily taken advantage of, is that correct?" Corker asked Shannon.
"I doubt they'll take advantage of our processes and the fact that we're a rule of law," Shannon said, also alluding to the fact that U.S. deportation practices can be rather lengthy.
"However, I'm not sure the exact numbers of who actually show or don't show for these kind of proceedings, but there is a reason to show up, especially if your intent is to file a request for asylum refugee status...if you believe you have a protection need, then you're going to show up," he said.
Corker appeared frustrated with the answers he was getting.
"I will tell you this," he said to Swartz, "it doesn't give me a lot of faith in the public officials who are dealing with this issue if they don't have some kind of gut instinct as to the number of people who are coming into this country .... That doesn't give me a very good sense of you having a handle on this situation."
Defending Swartz, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that while Corker's question was a "legitimate one," people should not think the administration is being "evasive."
The committee is debating whether to approve President Barack Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to cope with the crisis, in part by speeding up the deportation process.
"Well let me say that typically when people ask for an appropriation to deal with an issue, they have a sense of the magnitude of the problem..." Corker said. "I know that people have questions and I do hope that as a group will solve this problem in the next two weeks."
In recent months, there has been an influx of thousands of migrant kids from Central America crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The total number is estimated to reach approximately 50,000.
According to a recent poll by the Washington Post, 53 percent of Americans support Obama's money request, while 43 percent oppose the idea.