WASHINGTON — 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 America urging parents not to send their children north.
“I believe we will stem this tide,” Johnson testified.
More than 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.