Representatives of U.S. immigration and border enforcement officials told Congress Wednesday that the U.S. needs to stop talking about amnesty for illegal immigrants and start enforcing border laws, or the flood of child immigrants will only get worse.
People who represent these officials issued that stark warning at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, where they said the Obama administration's "catch and release" policy for illegal immigrants and overall relaxed enforcement of the laws is the main reason thousands are trying to cross the southern U.S. border.
Guatemalan migrant Gladys Chinoy, 14, waits along with more than 500 other migrants. Once across the river into Mexico, she joined a group of women and children traveling with a smuggler paid to take migrants to the U.S. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
"Over the last four years, our union has repeatedly advised Congress and America that the administration's immigration policies are failing in the field," said Chris Crane, president of the union who represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, in his prepared testimony to the committee.
Crane said his group has told ICE for years that the administration's policies are failing, and he said things will only get worse if things don't change. "If the administration continues with its current policies, it can expect the current crisis to further escalate, and crises in other areas to potentially emerge," he said.
Crane's comments are a slap to the Obama administration, which has continued to insist that its support for amnesty-style immigration changes are not the cause of the border rush.
In 2011, just 6,500 unaccompanied children came across the border. But in the same Judiciary hearing, officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ICE said by mid-June of this year, 52,000 have been apprehended, more than double the 24,000 seen all last year.
This crisis has led to GOP demands that the Obama administration more firmly assert to Central American countries that there will be no special status for these children, and that they will be deported.
Officials have recently taken these steps. But many Republicans say President Barack Obama's clear support for eased immigration rules continues to draw people. Crane agreed with that assessment on Wednesday, and said this discussion is only serving to put more pressure on the border.
"Continued talk in the United States of amnesty and legalization without appropriate law enforcement safeguards first put in place, will continue to draw millions like a magnet to our southern border," he said. "The most humane thing that we can do as Americans is to deter crises like this one through consistent enforcement of our nation's immigration laws."
Crane said his group called the border situation a "humanitarian crisis" in February, and said the administration only admitted that four months later.
He also described a situation in which border enforcement resources are being stretched very thin, as the administration is sending more people to deal with the crisis.
"ICE officers around the national are under orders to be packed for overnight travel and ready to respond at any time day or night — and responding they are," he said. He added that some border functions are being shut down as resources are redirected to help the so-called unaccompanied alien children, including operations of Enforcement and Removal Operations.
"Ironically, as ICE ERO and the Border Patrol spend millions of dollars and shift resources from vital programs to process family units and UACs, it is unlikely that a significant number of these illegal entrants will be removed form the United States unless changes are made to current immigration policy," he said. "Without removals it is doubtful that the influx of those illegally entering the U.S. will subside any time soon."
Crane's comments were backed up by Brandon Judd, who represents the 16,500 U.S. border patrol agents. Judd said a key step the government needs to take is to stop the administration's "catch and release" program.
"This program is bad policy and encourages people from countries other than Mexico to enter the United States illegally," he said. "Under this policy, and in most cases, individuals entering the U.S. illegally know they will be released if apprehended."
"The result is no one is afraid of breaking the law."
Judd said he administration also needs to be clear that no special status will be given to illegal immigrants, in order to take pressure off the border.
"We need to be crystal clear that unaccompanied minors and their families till not be rewarded for breaking the law through special or legal status after being arrested," he said.
"In the end, the current crisis needs to be addressed through consistent enforcement of the laws we already have, and through adequate manpower at the border."
Crane agreed that enforcement of current laws should be enough, which would send the message to others that they cannot rely on amnesty once they arrive in the United States.
"The answer of course is that we aggressively enforce our immigration laws and quickly remove those who enter the country illegally," Crane said.