Addressing Border Crisis, Politicians Find Invitation In Misperception

The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing Tuesday to address the influx of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke at the proceedings, saying the situation at the border was "urgent."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. On Capitol Hill today, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson got a grilling from members of Congress. The topic - the sudden wave of unaccompanied child immigrants crossing illegally into the U.S. this year. The White House says deplorable conditions in the children's countries of origin are driving the influx. But Republicans say the children are here because the Obama Administration has been lax about immigration policies. NPR's Ailsa Chang has more.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There is one reality both sides can agree on - violence has become so horrendous in parts of Central America, parents are willing to send their children off on harrowing journeys just for a glimmer of a shot at a better life. The trek into the U.S. for some stretches more than a thousand miles. And Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he's met too many youths with stories like this.

JEH JOHNSON: I spoke to one kid, who was about 12 or 13, who spent days climbing on top of a freight train - a boxcar - and these kids, sometimes they fall off because they fall asleep, they can't hold on any longer - it's exceedingly dangerous. White House officials say they've already rounded up more than 52,000 unaccompanied children along the southwestern border this year. Three-quarters are just from three countries - Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The Administration argues that conditions in those countries are pushing children out. But Republicans say no, the U.S.'s permissive policies are pulling them in. To Mike Rogers of Alabama, it's all about the fence that hasn't been built.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Well let me ask, in the Rio Grande Valley, if we had the same sort of fencing we have along the southern border of California, do you believe these children would be coming across the border and in the numbers they are coming across? Or anything close to it?

JOHNSON: It's hard to answer because you're talking about the Rio Grande River which is a very...

ROGERS: I've been there. I know what I'm talking about. And we don't have a fence down there, and if we did, we wouldn't have 5-year-old children coming across.

CHANG: But to most of the House Homeland Security Committee, the problem isn't a fence, it's a misperception. Even Johnson agreed there's a mistaken belief that children who enter illegally are free to stay.

JOHNSON: There is this disinformation out there that there is a permissos - that's what we're hearing. Permissos - free pass. Like you get a piece of paper that says, you know, welcome to United States, you're free.

CHANG: A 2012 White House initiative lets some young immigrants avoid deportation but only if they entered illegally before mid-2007. Republican Jeff Duncan of South Carolina says the Administration needs to better explain the rules.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DUNCAN: Are we directing in a Spanish-speaking voice of America into Central America saying, you cannot come into this country illegally. You will not get citizenship. In fact, you're going to be deported back to your home country.

CHANG: The House Judiciary Committee takes up the issue again tomorrow. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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