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20140121 Area Homeland-Security 0775Peñitas saw 35 drug seizures from December through February, according to Police Chief Roel Bermea. In April, that number increased 97 and May saw 171 seizures.

“I really don’t know what’s going on,” Bermea said. “We do what we have to do. I guess Border Patrol has seen an increase themselves.”

Before an aerostat, a helium-filled balloon with infrared cameras meant to deter illegal activity in the area, went up last year, Bermea said the city had been averaging between 60 and 90 a month.

La Joya Police Chief Geovani Hernandez echoed Bermea’s observations, estimating a 300-400 percent increase in recent activity. He pointed to three minor pursuits involving La Joya officers on Saturday as an example.

“We have noticed an increase in illegal activity in this county, and especially in this particular area, not La Joya, but this area, the west side of the county,” Hernandez said. “If I go out there and I do a traffic stop, there’s going to be some kind of thing.”

Border security and immigration, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley has been under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks. In a recent Homeland Security Oversight Committee hearing, Republicans focused on a report from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showing more than 36,000 people who are in the country illegally with criminal records were released back into the population in 2013.

And a recent increase of immigrants from Central America flooding the border has raised concerns on what to do with thousands of unaccompanied minors.

Homeland Security

In a three-and-a-half hour hearing last week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was grilled by members of the House on the department’s tactics, particularly concerning people arrested by the federal government who are undocumented and have a criminal record.

Of the 36,000 people released, 193 had homicide convictions, according to the ICE report, and other crimes ranged from sexual assault to kidnapping to stolen vehicles.

Johnson, who took over the role as head of Homeland Security in December, said he himself is looking for a deeper understanding of the numbers, and he intends to ensure the department is doing everything it can to prevent the situation.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, chair of the committee, said he has requested the identities of those who have been let go, “so we can determine what new crimes they have gone on to commit.”

“We can only expect DHS’s efforts to evade its immigrant enforcement to escalate,” Goodlatte later added. “President Obama has asked Secretary Johnson to perform an inventory of the department’s current enforcement practices to see how it can conduct them more humanely. These are simply code words for further ratcheting down enforcement of our immigration laws.”

Johnson said apprehensions have been down, but he acknowledged they’ve risen recently, particularly among people other than Mexicans in the Rio Grande Valley sector. He is developing a plan to address this particular issue, including a campaign that highlights the perilous journey into the United States.

“You are correct that I am engaged in a review of reforms to our enforcement priorities,” Johnson later told Goodlatte. “ The president has asked me to wait, for reasons that I agree, before announcing those reforms to give the House of Representatives the opportunity this summer to act on comprehensive immigration reform.”

Goodlatte later said he didn’t like the president setting a time limit and threatening action himself on the issue. It gives people who like what the president is doing less incentive to negotiate, Goodlatte said.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Nacogdoches, pointed to the backlog of people awaiting deportation and asked Johnson if he plans to address it.

“I think we need to reduce the backlog, but I need help from Congress to do that. I need the resources to do that,” Johnson said.

Gohmert responded, “That’s the amazing thing, you do the job, and we see you do the job, and we’ll get you the resources.”

Unaccompanied minors

Apprehensions of unaccompanied minors on the border through May 31 are up 168 percent from last fiscal year in the Rio Grande Valley sector, from 12,484 apprehensions in 2013 to 33,470 in 2014, according to figures recently released by Customs and Border Protection.

The number of unaccompanied Mexican children actually went down from 2013, from 17,240 to 11,577 through May 31 of this fiscal year. On the other hand, the number of children from El Salvador and Honduras has almost doubled to 9,850 and 13,282, respectively. The number of children from Guatemala also has increased.

The numbers represents a 90 percent increase across the border over last year, according to Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of Domestic Policy in a press call last week.

These children are apprehended by CBP and then transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. From there, federal authorities attempt to find the children’s closest relatives, the majority of whom are in the United States.

“The law does not allow for expedited removal of kids from noncontiguous countries, and most are from Central America,” Muñoz said. “If they are reunited with parents, these children are still in removal proceedings.”

Recently, a facility was opened up at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to hold some of the overflow of children apprehended. But with a capacity of 1,200, the space is nearly filled, and the government is opening a facility in Ventura County in California that can hold about 600 children. They will be flown to the facility.

“The children that are arriving are a particularly vulnerable group,” said Mark Greenberg, assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “To arrive here, they have survived a particularly perilous journey.”

He estimated the children are with the Health and Human Services on average between 30 and 45 days. A nonprofit agency, Baptist Children and Family Services, is contracted to oversee the children in the meantime.

The Office of Management and Budget recently requested nearly $2.3 billion in the 2015 fiscal year budget to cover the cost of care and transportation for unaccompanied minors – that’s up about $1.4 billion from what originally was budgeted.

But Muñoz, White House director of Domestic Policy, said it requires tealeaves to guess how many children will continue to come to the United States.

Obama directed Johnson to establish an interagency unified coordination group to address the influx of children, and officials announced Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency would help coordinate the government’s actions, including housing and health care. Fugate emphasized he would not be taking lead in the actual response, but it would be involved in coordinating the response from all of the agencies involved.

Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of DHS, said the department is working with Mexico and Central American countries to spread the word about the dangers of crossing the border and focusing efforts on detecting and prosecuting smuggling efforts.

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