CAPITOL HILL - The Trump administration on Thursday said a surge of migrant arrivals at the southern U.S. border continues to accelerate, with more than 300,000 mostly Central American undocumented immigrants apprehended or requesting asylum so far in the current fiscal year, which began last October.
"We are in the midst of an ongoing humanitarian and security crisis at the southwest border," acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told a Senate panel. "Almost 110,000 migrants attempted to cross without legal status last month, the most in over a decade, and over 65% were families and unaccompanied children."
At the current pace, 2019's total for migrant arrivals would more than triple the number reported for all of 2018, which was 169,000.
Factors in migration
McAleenan said that while gang violence and rampant insecurity in three Central American nations has started to ebb, other factors, such as persistent droughts and a lack of economic opportunity, continue to compel a large number of people to trek north.
The DHS acting secretary also highlighted U.S. policy as a "pull factor" for migrants.
"Families [apprehended at the border] can no longer be held together through an appropriate and fair proceeding, and essentially have a guarantee of release and an indefinite stay in the United States," McAleenan told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. "It's been exploited by smugglers who are advertising that opportunity, and that's what's causing the significant surge that we see this year."
The administration's handling of migrant children continued to be a focus of congressional scrutiny after news broke earlier this week that a sixth minor — a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador — had died in U.S. government custody.
"We all agree that we must absolutely secure our borders, but the death of children in custody is simply unacceptable," the panel's top Democrat, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, said. "We must identify what went wrong and ensure that this doesn't happen again."
McAleenan said he has directed that all arriving children receive health screenings, and that, on average, 65 migrants are taken to hospitals daily. Overall, he pointed to an overwhelmed system pushed to the breaking point.
"Given the scale of what we are facing, we will exhaust our resources before the end of this fiscal year," said McAleenan, who also serves as chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS.
The Trump administration has requested supplemental funds for the current fiscal year and substantial increases in next year's DHS budget to address the border crisis. The panel's chairman echoed the calls.
"This is a growing crisis and we have to … pass that emergency spending bill," Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said.
While agreeing that more resources are needed, several lawmakers said money alone can't resolve the situation.
"I think the smartest thing we could actually do would be comprehensive immigration reform, and God willing, someday we'll get back and do that," Delaware Democratic Sen. Tom Carper said.