SAN ANTONIO — A surge of immigrant children pouring into Texas and across the southwest U.S. border brought Republican and Democratic leaders Monday to federal facilities across the state where tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors are being held in temporary shelters.
At Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott emerged from a tour calling the situation a "humanitarian crisis" — the same way President Barack Obama has described more than 52,000 children who've entered the country illegally in recent months.
But Cruz and Abbott, the favorite to become Texas governor next year, immediately pivoted to blast the Obama administration on border security and policies they say lead immigrants to believe they can stay in the country long-term if they survive a perilous journey from Central America to the U.S.
"We're dealing with a human-made crisis," Abbott said. "The challenges these children are going through are unprecedented. It's unacceptable to have children housed in facilities like this."
Cruz and Abbott say they were told stories of children being ordered by human traffickers to cut off fingers and ears of other kids as a way of extorting money.
As they briefed reporters, some of the children played soccer and could be heard laughing in a small yard outside an Air Force dormitory on the other side of high barbed-wire fence.
After visiting a Border Patrol facility in South Texas on Monday, Gov. Rick Perry said that the number of immigrants being detained has created an "untenable situation."
"The border with Mexico is not secure," Perry said at a Department of Public Safety regional headquarters in Weslaco. "This is an absolute humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen."
Perry repeated his call for the federal government to secure the border and said current policy had exacerbated the problem by giving immigrants from Central America the impression that if they can just get across the Rio Grande they'll be allowed to go anywhere they want in the U.S.
Perry's visit came after he took the rare step last week of authorizing an extra $1.3 million a week in funding for state troopers to ramp up security on the Texas side of the border.
The state now could spend up to an extra $35 million in border security by year's end but won't disclose where the money will go or how it will be spent, citing operational security and trooper safety.
Also on Monday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis toured a Border Patrol facility in McAllen.
Davis, Abbott's opponent in November, sent Perry a letter asking him to declare a state of emergency along Texas' border with Mexico to "assist overwhelmed local communities." She also wants Perry to convene a special legislative session to increase funding to city and county officials, first-responders and charities.
Some conservatives have sought a special session too, but want to focus on securing the border. Perry's office quickly dismissed Davis' requests.
"If Senator Davis truly agrees with Governor Perry that it is the federal government's responsibility to secure the border, she should forward a copy of her letter to her friend and political ally in Washington, President Obama," Perry spokesman Travis Considine said.
The Obama administration estimates it will catch 90,000 children trying to illegally cross the Mexican border without their parents by the end of the current budget year in September. Last year, the government returned fewer than 2,000 children to their native countries.
The administration has asked Congress for $2 billion to spend on the issue.
Cruz acknowledged that some of the children coming across the border would qualify for refugee status but said the U.S. needs to attempt to send them back to their home countries.
"If we were to take these 90,000 kids and grant amnesty to these 90,000 kids, next year we wouldn't see 145,000, we'd see substantially more," Cruz said.
Christopher Sherman reported from McAllen, Texas.
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