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U.S. officials to leaders in Central America: ‘Do you want your children back?’

Posted Sunday, Jul. 20, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Texas is running out of room to house the thousands of Central American children who illegally crossed the border.

And U.S. Rep. Kay Granger said Saturday that the solution is not to continue piling them into bus stations and other makeshift shelters — including unused schools in North Texas — as officials try to find the best way to return the children safely to their families in countries as far away as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

“I’m having a real problem with what we are doing with these children,” said Granger, R-Fort Worth, who is leading the select group of Republican lawmakers studying the border crisis. “These children look just dazed.

“Some of those kids are being moved as many as three times within three days and they don’t know where they are,” she said. “How do we deal with this?”

Granger, whose group’s recommendations on what should be done are expected to be made public as soon as Tuesday, has traveled with other congressional leaders to Guatemala, Honduras and the Texas border to see the growing humanitarian crisis firsthand.

She has found children sleeping by the hundreds on tile floors in bus stations — or crowded 20 or 30 to a room at military bases — as Border Patrol officials work to find better places for them, especially if they have relatives in this country.

The cost of housing children who have journeyed here across Texas’ border with Mexico ranges from $200 to $800 per child per day, and the federal government is responsible for picking up the tab.

Texas leaders have long called for the White House to secure the border, but reports show that the steady stream of people illegally crossing the border to find safety in the United States has become a flood — especially of unaccompanied children — and has topped 57,000 since October.

“We have filled up the spots in Texas and they are looking at places in Maine and Washington state — wherever they can find the space,” Granger said.

It’s now time to stop “warehousing” the children and “work with them humanely to keep them safe,” she said.

Complex problem

Last month, top Texas officials signed off on a plan to spend $1.3 million a week to try to combat the problem, directing Texas Department of Public Safety officials to proceed with surge operations to secure the border through at least the end of the calendar year.

In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama has asked Congress to allocate $3.7 billion in emergency funding to help with the crisis.

And Texas leaders have traveled to the border, prompting U.S. Sen. John Cornyn last week to propose the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency Act to reform current law, speed the deportations of Central American children and ensure their safety while they are here.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented crisis,” U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, said in a recent video message sent to constituents in his district. “The recent influx … is staggering.”

Burgess and others oppose amnesty. Others, including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, urge colleagues to overhaul the immigration system.

“We need to put politics aside and work together to pass a fair immigration plan for the 21st century that honors this country’s history as the land of opportunity, justice and equality for all,” Vesey has said.

Granger said the solution to the crisis may be as complex as the problem itself.

“I’m trying to tell people what the situation is,” she said. “People are really angry and they don’t understand how this happened.”

‘Do you want your children back?’

As Granger traveled to the border, she saw children crowded into makeshift shelters.

Hundreds slept on bus station floors; dozens crowded into rooms at military bases, sleeping in rooms with metal beds and metal lockers.

Volunteers work around the clock to feed and care for the children.

“It was a horrible situation,” she said.

When she and other congressional leaders visited Honduras and Guatemala recently, the first question they asked leaders there was, “Do you want your children back?”

“They were adamant, of course, that they want their children back,” Granger said. “So we wanted to know how we can help them with that.”

In Honduras, Granger saw makeshift shelters where children were already staying because of violence, including repeated shootings in the streets.

It was there, she said, where she learned that coyotes — people paid thousands of dollars to bring children and adults alike into the United States — were portraying themselves as similar to social workers. They even advertised on social media.

“They say they’ll help by taking the children to the United States,” she said. “Parents wanting to keep their children safe will let them go off with someone like that.”

And the number of people illegally crossing into the United States increased last year as the “coyotes sent out a message that if you send your children now, the United States won’t send them back,” Granger said, adding that officials have tried to counter that message on television and radio.

‘Warehousing kids’

As thousands of children continue crossing the border, officials in Texas and other states have tried to find the best places to keep them.

The general cost is $200-$500 a day per child, but that can go up to $800 for children staying at military bases.

“The cost is enormous,” Granger said.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said this month that about 2,000 of those children could be temporarily housed in Dallas County if plans underway are worked out. He has said he’s looking for schools that arenot being used, as well as other large buildings.

“It’s still warehousing kids,” Granger said. “Schools weren’t built for children to sleep there. They were built for children to learn there.”

Granger said Border Patrol officers are so overwhelmed with caring for the children they continue to find crossing into the U.S. that they can’t do their jobs.

“We have got to protect our borders better,” she said. “We [suggest] putting National Guard at the border to help … so we can get a handle on this. Also, take care of these children so that they are returned to their country and reunited with their families — if their families are still there — in a humane way.

“Let’s stop this and hopefully put in programs so this doesn’t happen again.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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