By Alexander Bolton - 07/10/14 07:18 PM EDT
Federal officials testified Thursday their agencies have been overwhelmed by the surge of illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said two key agencies in charge of border security are about to run out of money unless Congress approves a $3.7 billion emergency funding request from President Obama.
“Customs and Border Patrol will run out of money in mid September,” he warned.
Johnson said surging transportation costs and the need to build additional detention facilities has depleted his operating budget.
Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell said her department is running out of beds for the tens of thousands of children who have crossed the border illegally from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“What happened in May and June is the number of children that came through DHS exceeded the number of beds we had available at HHS,” she told lawmakers. “Whenever that number exceeds, those children are at the border and those children are in detention and holding pens until we can move them.”
Burwell warned of a massive backup of child detainees at the border unless her department receives millions of dollars in new funds immediately.
Nearly 50,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the Texas border since October 2013, and the Border Patrol estimated earlier this year the number could reach 90,000 before the end of September.
Johnson said it can take between a few weeks to more than a year to adjudicate the cases of illegal immigrants who are children from Central American countries.
The process for addressing illegal minors from Mexico and Canada is much quicker because they were not granted special due process rights under the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Johnson said of the 1,800 unaccompanied children are deported per year, only a small fraction of those are smuggled across the border.
“Part of this request is so we can accelerate that process so that more are returned given the current situation,” he said.
But even some Democrats were skeptical of the administration’s request because of a lack of specifics.
“How can you give us a budget request if you don’t know how it’s going to speed up the process?” asked Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), citing previous testimony from Thomas Homan, a senior official at ICE, said there is a backlog in the courts of about 375,000 illegal immigrants who are children and that it would take between three and five years for them to wend their way through the process. She is the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security subcommittee.
“I want to help but I also have strong feelings about right now today a lack of accountability as to what agency in front of us is ultimately in charge,” Landrieu said.
Currently the departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Justice and State have some jurisdiction over the crisis.
Landrieu wants that responsibility consolidated into one department.
“Otherwise it’s going to be a dispersal of funds, no metrics, no overall accountability,” she said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said the government’s first goal should be to protect the safety and health of the unaccompanied minors.
She said the second objective should be “a muscular deterrence strategy that discourages families from sending their children with smugglers out for profit.”
Republicans said the administration must present a more convincing plan for how it intends to slow the flow of children from Central America and questioned whether the 2008 trafficking law needs to be amended.
“We’ve heard reports that probably we need to change that law some way, amend that law, as we talk about more money,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
Johnson acknowledged changing the law could be helpful.
“I do believe that some type of added discretion on my part would be helpful to address this particular situation,” he said. “What we have in mind is treating migrants, unaccompanied migrants from the three Central American countries, which are what we call non-contiguous countries, as being from contiguous countries.”
But when pressed by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Johnson insisted the administration could deal with the surge of unaccompanied minors without changes to the 2008 trafficking law.
“I believe we can,” he said. “I believe the 2008 law reflects fundamental values and commitments of this country that we should continue to adhere to, but I also believe that through increased detention capability, added resources by my department, [and] the Department of Justice, we can and we should turn people around quicker.”
The administration officials emphasized they have waged a public relations campaign in the Guatemala and the other Central American countries from where the migration has emanated but Republican lawmakers said it was not sufficient.