Texas officials appealed to the Obama administration on Thursday to secure the U.S.-Mexico border once and for all as waves of illegal immigrant children overwhelm the system, with one lawmaker saying U.S. military bases effectively have been transformed into camps to handle the influx.
"Our military bases are turning into refugee camps. I never thought I'd see this in the United States of America," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said.
McCaul spoke at a field hearing he convened in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley which has seen the brunt of the migrant surge. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has deployed state resources in a bid to boost border security, and other state officials testified at the hearing.
"Secure this border, Mr. President," Perry urged in his opening remarks.
The hearing comes as the Obama administration, and local communities, grapple with the influx of illegal immigrant children and families, mostly from Central America.
Several top-ranking lawmakers have visited the border in recent days, and President Obama earlier this week requested additional authority to speed up deportations in some cases. He also announced he's shifting enforcement resources from the interior to the affected areas.
But in the meantime, the federal government is scrambling to house illegal immigrant minors awaiting immigration proceedings. They are spread out among a number of facilities, including military bases like Ft. Sill in Oklahoma and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
McCaul said it is clear the Obama administration is not prepared to deal with the influx. "This has left state and local officials to fill the void," he said.
Perry announced recently that the state would launch a $1.3 million-per-week effort to send state agents from the Department of Public Safety to help police the border. He said Thursday that the federal government needs to increase the Texas National Guard contingent -- and also argued that the state should be reimbursed for the half-billion dollars it's spent on border security over the past decade.
"We have been fulfilling a federal responsibility," Perry said.
Officials have pointed to numerous factors driving the surge along the Texas-Mexico border, including violence and poor conditions in Central America.
But McCaul said the primary factor is a series of executive actions the administration has taken easing deportation policies, especially for young illegal immigrants. He warned that Obama's recent vow to take more executive actions "could cause it to be worse."
Both McCaul and Perry said the solution is to send a tough message by deporting those caught crossing the border. They argued that allowing the migrants to stay is not the humanitarian response, despite what some advocacy groups say.
"These children are often subjected to beatings, starvation, sexual assault and are at risk of being trafficked," McCaul said, describing the conditions of those who make the journey.
Perry said: "Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals to undertake this very dangerous" trip.
While Republicans say Obama's policies are to blame, Obama says the flood of children points to the need for overhauling immigration laws.
Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Panama, where he met with the country's new president and the presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala to discuss what they can do together to stop the surge. Many from Central American say they are fleeing gang violence and poverty.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained after crossing the border since October. Many of the migrants are under the impression that they will receive leniency from U.S. authorities.
Tensions are running high in local communities. In California, several dozen U.S. flag-waving protesters blocked Homeland Security buses carrying migrant children and families from reaching a suburban processing center north of San Diego. The buses were rerouted to a customs and border facility in San Diego, within view of the Mexico border. The migrants had been flown to Southern California for processing to help alleviate a crunch on the border in Texas.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, asked about Thursday's hearing in Texas, reiterated that the president is "committed to enforcing the law."
He noted that the law calls for providing "basic humanitarian needs" for children caught crossing the border.
"That's why the president has asked for additional resources from Congress to open up detention facilities across the country, where these individuals can be housed in humane conditions," he said.
Earnest said officials are also looking at alternatives like ankle bracelets, and seeking more resources to process cases more quickly.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., returning from a congressional visit to the border, also put out a statement on Thursday echoing the call for tougher consequences -- and for addressing the crisis with "deterrence."
His office also revealed that many minors crossing the border alone are meeting up with their parents "who are already in the United States illegally." His office said these parents often "had a role in smuggling the minors into the United States."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.