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Texas Gov. Testifies On Crisis In Child Immigration


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Tamara Keith in for Scott Simon. The House Homeland Security Committee held a special field hearing Thursday in McAllen, Texas, which is ground zero for the extraordinary immigration story playing out on the border. More than 52,000 unaccompanied, immigrant children from Central America and almost as many single mothers and small children have illegally crossed the Rio Grande there in South Texas since October. The human wave has caused a humanitarian crisis - how to handle them, and a policy crisis - what to do with them all. NPR's John Burnett has been covering the story for us. He was at the Congressional hearing in South Texas, and he's on the line with us from his office in Austin. Hello, John.


KEITH: John, what were the moments in this hearing that seemed most important to you?

BURNETT: Well, it was a very partisan hearing like everything seems to be these days. And so we heard, over and over again, the same talking points that we've heard from congressional Republicans and especially from Texas Governor Rick Perry - certainly no friend of the president's - and those are that this problem is made in Washington. That the president willfully refuses to secure the southern border, which is causing the state of Texas, the governor said, $1.3 million a week on overtime for state troopers to supplement the Border Patrol. And he said Obama's immigration policies have enticed Central Americans to leave home and come north. But there were a few moments when the complexity and the nuance of this situation seemed to seep into the conversation. So let's hear this back and forth with Freshman Representative Eric's Swalwell, a Democrat from Northern California. We'll hear first from Rick Perry.


GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: And what you have seen is a catalyst that has been growing year by year and people understanding that if you will get from wherever you are to the border of the United States, you can cross and the federal government is not going to impede you from coming into this country and staying here. And that is why Americans are upset.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC SWALWELL: And, Governor, you're calling for...

PERRY: That is why Americans are upset.

SWALWELL: ...For additional Border Patrol agents, but during our briefing this morning, we were told this is not a matter of catching them. That these children are running into open arms. So wouldn't additional Border Patrol agents only increase the number of open arms that these children are running into?

KEITH: John, you are also interested in this testimony from Ramon Garcia. He's the county judge of Hidalgo County, which is where McAllen is located.


JUDGE ROMAN GARCIA: The issue, I thought, was very simple - what are we going to do to address this issue of the influx of undocumented, illegal children that are coming to our country from Central America? And in my experience - in my mind, they do not create a public health crisis for our area. You know, we're not dealing with drug dealers. We're not dealing with terrorists.

BURNETT: I thought the reason Garcia's tape is important is because, again, he seemed to be sort of levelheaded rejecting the incendiary talk that we're hearing in this humanitarian crisis, especially from the Texas governor's office such as these kids have diseases. Reality check - there has been one case of H1N1 flu out of more than 52,000 kids. Or that this flood of immigrants could include people from countries that harbor terrorists.

KEITH: While you were in McAllen, you visited a shelter that is receiving some of these immigrants. What did you see?

BURNETT: Well, I went to the parish hall next to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen. They've turned it into a sort of rest area and supply center. This is where some of the young immigrant mothers and their little kids come after they've been caught by the Border Patrol, processed for seven to nine very difficult days. Then they're taken to the central bus station, and that's where Catholic Charities asks them if they want to come to this sort of relief center. They will go on to interior cities in the U.S. to await their day in immigration court. And so what you see there are all these young mothers with kids sitting at these young long tables getting a meal that's not a bologna sandwich and a bottle of water, which they get in the Border Patrol holding cell. And then their kids are taken into this - called child-friendly space. It's run by the humanitarian organization Save the Children. They can paint. They have toys to play with. They have books in Spanish. They let kids be kids after these arduous journeys. And I spoke to Carolyn Miles, the CEO of Save the Children USA. She said they've done this kind of work in South Sudan, around Syria, after Hurricane Katrina. But this is the first time they've done it on the border.

CAROLYN MILES: You know, the journeys have been very hard. A lot of these families are going, you know, more than a thousand miles - buses and trains and walking for - one little boy told me he walked for three days at the end of his journey to get to the border. So the journeys have been pretty tough.

BURNETT: Carolyn Miles with Save the Children has asked the Border Patrol if they can set up these child-friendly spaces inside these detention centers where these kids will stay for a week or longer. And so far, the Border Patrol has said no.

KEITH: NPR's John Burnett in Austin, Texas. Thank you very much.

BURNETT: It's been a pleasure, Tamara. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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