I recently had the opportunity to travel to Texas with a bipartisan group of senators to assess firsthand the crisis along our southern border. Many Nebraskans have contacted me to express their concerns with the surge of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) arriving at our border.
I share their worries and felt it was important for me to gather information directly from those responsible for managing the situation.
We first visited the McAllen Border Patrol Station, where we met with Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske and Chief Border Patrol Agents. This is the largest and busiest station in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, with more than 3,200 border patrol agents responsible for 53 percent of all apprehensions nationwide.
So far in fiscal year 2014, the McAllen Border Patrol has apprehended 225,000 individuals trying to illegally enter our country – that’s 126,000 more than last year.
Individuals attempting to violate the law and enter the United States come from more than 143 different countries.
It’s not just innocent children looking for a better life; it’s also gang members, drug and sex traffickers, and those who wish to do harm to our citizens. That’s why I’ve always believed that border security is also a matter of national security.
Existing law, which was adopted by Congress in 2008, requires the Border Patrol to treat Central American children differently than other children, such as those from Mexico or Canada, who cross our border illegally. Previous problems with the sex trafficking of Central American children prompted Congress to act – with good intentions – to impose a longer process through immigration courts, but the practical effect of the law is to worsen the current crisis by slowing down the return of these children to their home countries.
On average, adults and Mexican children who cross the southern border illegally are returned home within 3-5 days, allowing the border patrol to operate efficiently.
However, the border patrol must process and detain Central American children separately until they are transferred to the custody of U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS).
Border Patrol agents, who have performed admirably, are not equipped to be caretakers and complying with the 2008 law has forced them to devote significant manpower and resources toward detaining and processing them.
The majority of the Central American children are males between 14-17 years old.
As one border patrol agent put it, “This makes us less efficient at our job – it’s a huge bottleneck.”
We also had the chance to visit an HHS facility where the children are held for several weeks until they are placed with relatives or foster families who care for them until their case is heard in an immigration court. The HHS facilities were well operated and after visiting both border patrol and HHS holding centers, there is no doubt that these children are treated humanely.
Finally, we had the opportunity to visit the Hidalgo Bridge that connects the United States and Mexico. More than 900 people cross this bridge each day to legally enter the United States for tourism or business.
Many people also use the bridge to try and enter illegally, or overstay their visas to visit. More than 40 percent of our nation’s illegal immigration problem is due to visa overstays. That’s why I previously offered legislation to create a biometric entry/exit system at all points of entry so we can track both who is entering and who is leaving our country.
I believe now, more than ever, that changes to current law to expedite the return home of these children are key to solving this problem.
We are a compassionate, generous nation that has long welcomed immigrants through the legal process – more than any other nation in the world. But we are also a nation of laws, and these children must be quickly and safely returned home.