Texas could soon be a staging ground for a new federal border-security operation under President Obama’s executive action on immigration, the country’s homeland security chief said on Tuesday.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee that he thinks the current security approach is too “stove piped” and that he is set to announce details soon on the new mission.
“The southern border campaign strategy that we’re developing is an initiative to bring to bear all of the department’s resources in a particular region of the country,” he said at the Washington, D.C., hearing.
The hearing was scheduled by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, almost immediately after Obama made his Nov. 20 announcement that he will use his executive authority to grant up to 5 million illegal immigrants in the country a temporary reprieve from deportation proceedings and a work permit.
Johnson was vague on the details of the border plan, but according to a White House fact sheet on the president’s action, the border security efforts will build on the surge of law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border that began over the summer. That effort focused on removing recent illegal crossers by reordering immigration court dockets.
McCaul, the chairman of the committee, said the Department of Homeland Security needed to be prepared for a new wave of illegal crossers. He said it's inevitable, given the crush of undocumented immigrants who crossed into Texas last summer.
About 50,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S. Border Patrol during the 2014 budget year. An additional 52,300 families were apprehended in the same area. Republicans blamed that surge, in part, on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a 2012 executive action that gave some immigrant youths a reprieve from deportation. The majority of the illegal crossers were from Central America.
“We’re going to see a surge and a wave of illegal immigration,” McCaul said. “I am telling you it’s going to happen. It’s coming.”
At the state level, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the incoming governor, said recently that because Texans dealt firsthand with the consequences of the illegal surge and had to spend state money to handle it, the state has cause to bring suit against the administration. Abbott could file a lawsuit against the Obama administration as soon as next week.
On Tuesday, McCaul also questioned the timing of the president's announcement, which Obama postponed until after the November elections.
“Who should we believe, the president before the election who said he didn’t have legal authority to take this action? Or the president after the election who said he does have the authority to take this executive action,” McCaul said at the hearing.
Johnson said the president’s remarks before the election dealt with awarding citizenship or permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants, which cannot be done under current law. The executive action will defer deportation but will not lead to “lawful status,” Johnson said.
Johnson also faced pushback from border Democrats who are in favor of immigration reform but who cringe at the concept of more border security. Congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said there is a growing concern that expedited removals could circumvent the legal process.
“I think we are short-cutting due process and we threaten to return families and have returned families and children into some very dangerous situations,” O’Rourke said at the hearing. “Certainly there are those who should be deported but certainly there are those who qualify for asylum in our country.”
O’Rourke also pressed for specifics on what more border security means in practical terms.
“You and others have said the border has never been more secure,” he told Johnson.
“I’d like to know what [more border security] means for my community,” he added. “Is that simply repositioning resources along the border? Or are you asking for ultimately more Border Patrol agents, more walls, more of these militarization measures? At what point do we have enough security on the border?”