By Ben Goad - 06/24/14 09:13 PM EDT
Calls for the Obama administration to dispatch the National Guard to the southern border intensified Tauesday, as GOP lawmakers demanded a more aggressive response to the flood of immigrant children pouring illegally into the country.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said the time has come to send in troops.
Other members of the panel echoed the appeal, suggesting the border patrol is ill equipped to handle the wave without reinforcements, and agents might be too busy “changing diapers” to ward off more dangerous national security threats.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is leading the federal response and appeared Tuesday to brief lawmakers, pledged that he would entertain “every conceivable, lawful option” to address the problem.
Johnson said there are legal limitations in using the Guard for law enforcement purposes, and noted that the Defense Department might oppose diverting the resources, especially during hurricane season.
“But I’ve heard the calls from some that we put the Guard on the border,” he said. “I’d want to understand better what the — what the options are for the use of the Guard, depending on the direction of this situation takes. But I don’t — I don’t take any option off the table.”
The debate comes as the government estimates that more than 52,000 immigrant children have crossed the southern border illegally this year. In his testimony, Johnson said that as many as three quarters are escaping violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The crisis has led to major public health and legal challenges, as well as a logistical nightmare for the government. The Obama administration has pulled together a task force including the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services to grapple with the problems.
Perhaps most problematic, some said, was the security void left by Border Patrol agents taken away from their usual duties to tackle the flow of child migrants.
“If children can come across because CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] agents are changing diapers or warming formula or doing other things other than securing the border, then I’m sure that elements that want to do harm to this country can exploit our poor southern border also,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.).
Johnson detailed a 14-point initiative that would beef up resources along the border and at detention facilities. It also includes a massive international public relations campaign meant to deter parents from sending their kids across the border.
Military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma have been designated as processing centers for the children, with transportation aided by aircraft borrowed from the U.S. Coast Guard, he said.
“We are talking about large numbers of children, without their parents, who have arrived at our border hungry, thirsty, exhausted, scared and vulnerable,” he said.
Though the children are given health screenings, access to legal services and are, in some cases, reunited with family members they came to find, Johnson stressed that the youths are not eligible for relief from deportation under the president’s deferred action program, nor would they be eligible for a path to citizenship under immigration reform legislation.
Republicans argued that the administration’s lenient immigration policies have served as a magnet for illegal immigrants who have come to believe that, once inside the United States, they will be allowed to remain.
“I think this humanitarian crisis can be laid directly at the feet of President Obama,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.).
Still, Miller accused the Mexican and Central American governments of turning a blind eye to the flow of immigrants, who also travel across Mexico’s southern border on the way to the United States.
She called on the administration to cut off foreign aid to those nations and re-examine trade pacts if they refuse to shore up their own immigration controls.
“We need to whack them, our neighbors, to understand that they are just not going to keep taking our money, and we are just going to be sitting here like this,” she said. “We are not going to enforce our way out of this situation. We need to have some policy change.”
Miller was among the first to propose sending the National Guard to the border. Her request was followed last week by a similar appeal from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who ordered his own “surge” at the Lone Star State’s border with Mexico involving 1,000 Texas National Guard troops.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his support for the plan last Friday, and the drumbeat got louder Tuesday, with additional lawmakers backing the idea.
“As many of my colleagues have pointed out today, the National Guard can play a pivotal role in securing America’s borders,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo.
The Mississippi Republican went further than his fellow lawmakers, calling for a long-term strategy involving a protracted National Guard presence along the southern border.
No Democrats on the committee voiced support for National Guard involvement.
Some, including Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), appeared averse to the idea of using a military operation to face down kids as young as five years old.
“We can’t say it’s a humanitarian crisis on the one hand — and I think just about every colleague has acknowledged that — and then want to put arms on the border to meet children who are fleeing clearly untenable situations in their homelands,” she said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello said the agency is adequately staffed and has more resources than it did a year ago, though he acknowledged the additional workload is a challenge.
“So, we are concerned as this goes on about staffing levels and our ability to do the other patrol border functions,” he told the panel.
This story was posted at 11 a.m. and updated at 9:13 p.m.