McALLEN, Texas – Gov. Rick Perry told a U.S. House field hearing Thursday that President Obama should deploy the National Guard to secure the Texas border and should send thousands of undocumented child immigrants back to their home country.
He also called on the federal government to reimburse Texas the $500 million that he said the state has spent on securing the border since 2005.
"We have been fulfilling a federal responsibility," Perry told the House panel. "The hardworking people of the state of Texas shouldn't be shouldering that cost."
More than 50,000 of the youth, mostly from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have crossed over since October, up from 13,625 two years ago.
In remarks at the hearing in this border town, the Texas governor said the federal government should send back the undocumented children rather than release them to an adult in the USA, as is legal under current U.S. policy.
"Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals to undertake this dangerous and life-threatening journey here," Perry said.
Perry stressed throughout the hearing that tightening the security on the border – with a requested 1,000 Texas National Guard troops and more resources – is the first step in staunching the current crisis.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, challenged that view, asking Perry how more troops would help the situation when the children are simply turning themselves in after crossing the Rio Grande.
"The power of boots on the ground cannot be overstated," Perry said. "The message needs to be not, 'If you come into the United States, you'll be deported,' but, 'You won't enter the United States.'"
Perry said the influx of immigrant youth, often times accompanied by a parent, is diverting law enforcement's attention away from smuggling rings, cartel groups and other criminal activity along the border. "The border between the U.S. and Mexico is less secure today than at any time in the recent past," he said.
U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who spoke before Perry, said the influx of tens of thousands of children was not a security crisis, but a humanitarian one.
"A massive deportation policy for children – and the mass detention of children – is not a humane thing to do," she said.
The hearings are playing out against a backdrop of rising tension in Southern California where flag-waving protesters on Tuesday turned back Homeland Security busloads of emigrants who were sent from Texas for processing in the community of Murrieta, Calif.
The House Homeland Security Committee "field hearing," led by Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, was held at South Texas College, just a few miles north of the stretch of border that has been overrun by groups of migrant youth.
Last month, Perry authorized the Texas Department of Public Safety to deploy more of its agents to the border to beef up security, at a cost of $1.3 million per week.
On Wednesday, the White House said Obama was proposing changes to speed up deportations of children caught at the border. The president has asked Congress for $2 billion and flexibility in dealing with the immigrant youth.
Around the Rio Grande Valley, the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville and other volunteer groups have stepped up to help with the overflow of immigrant women and children crossing over.
At the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, diocese officials have erected air-conditioned tents where recent-arrivals rest and shower before heading to their new destinations.
"It's a crisis," retired Bishop Raymundo Peña said. "We don't know what numbers will come in each day. It's in the hundreds."
Thirteen shelters around South Texas are overflowing with the children, as officials try to streamline their processing times and release them to adults in the USA. Additional shelters have been opened in California and Oklahoma.
In El Centro, Calif., Wednesday night, federal officials got a harsh reception from local residents over an attempt on Tuesday to bring the immigrants to Murrieta in the first place.
"Send them back! Send them back!" the crowd at the specially called meeting chanted, shouting down Chief Border Patrol Agent Paul Beeson after he took responsibility for transferring the Central American children and families to Murrieta from the overflowing facilities in Texas.
Contributing: Associated Press