Lawmakers head south to survey conditions for migrant kids

Migrants sit at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church temporary migrant shelter in McAllen, Texas
Migrants sit at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church temporary migrant shelter in McAllen, Texas June 27, 2014.

McALLEN, Texas -- If Congress wants to take up a legislative solution to cope with the flood of migrant children crossing the border illegally, it will have to step on the gas, and soon. But considering Congress’ track record on dealing with contentious issues along the border, the next few weeks will be crucial in determining relief outcomes for the busiest region of illegal border crossings in the country. 

All eyes are on the Rio Grande Valley region here in South Texas, where there has been a 178% increase in the number of children caught crossing into the U.S. in the last year alone.

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is leading a congressional delegation through the region to see the issue first-hand. More lawmakers are expected to arrive for tours throughout the week, while the House Committee on Homeland Security will hold a field hearing here in McAllen, Texas, to examine the problem. At the event, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to give witness testimony on the heels of the Republican’s announcement that he would commit more than $1 million a week in state funds to beef border security with public safety officers.

Meanwhile, a group of 33 Republican House members are pressuring President Obama to clamp down on any false rumors that unaccompanied minors would effectively get a free ride toward citizenship if they make their way to the U.S. border. 

“You must make an explicit public commitment that you will not support legislation that extends legal status to newly arriving illegal aliens no matter the age,” the group wrote in a letter Wednesday.

President Obama said this week he is willing to sidestep Congress and take executive action on immigration issues after Speaker John Boehner shattered any hope that the House would take up comprehensive reform this year. Obama on Monday outlined a $2 billion proposal asking Congress to authorize heightened border enforcement, build more facilities, send immigration judges down to South Texas and speed up deportation proceedings. But congressmen who hail from the border lands are saying the steps are too little, too late.

“The administration responded moving in the right direction, but they’re one step behind,” Rep. Henry Cuellar told a group of reporters Wednesday. The Texas Democrat expressed a sense of urgency for Congress to swiftly enact legislation in the coming weeks, before Capitol Hill effectively screeches to a halt with the August recess and upcoming midterm elections.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been arrested along the southwest border, the vast majority from the Rio Grande Valley. By some estimates, as many as 90,000 total children could be swept up by immigration enforcement officers this year alone, an overwhelming demand that has federal agencies struggling to keep up.

By law, the children can be detained by Border Patrol for no more than 72 hours. From there, agents hand over the minors to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which provides medical screenings and services to locate any of the children’s family members in the U.S.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this week made his third visit to McAllen since he assumed his post at the start of this year. After touring the Border Patrol station, Johnson said he would dispatch 150 more agents to move to the border to help address the issue. The Border Patrol stations are beyond capacity, and releasing as many as 500 families from custody at day, Cuellar said.

Plans are already underway in McAllen to convert a new warehouse into a processing facility. According to reports, the 55,700-square-foot building just off the U.S.-Mexico border will be retrofit to accommodate up to 1,000 children at a time.

“We’ve got such a flood that all of the facilities in Texas are busting at the seams,” Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd Wednesday. “This is a humanitarian crisis, the whole country needs to step up and help out.”