White House Plans More Detention Centers To Address Border Crisis

White House Plans More Detention Centers To Address Border Crisis

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

SAN ANTONIO — Obama administration officials announced new measures Friday to detain and process an influx of families streaming over the southern U.S. border in recent months, primarily from Central America.

Officials plan to open new temporary immigration detention centers to house the families, and will send more immigration judges and government lawyers to the epicenter of the crisis in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to speed processing of immigrants’ cases, officials said during a Friday briefing.

“We are surging our resources to increase our capacity to detain,” said Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

He would not say whether the new detention facilities would be on military bases, where officials have opened other shelters for immigrant youths in recent weeks. The government currently operates only one detention facility for immigrant families, a transitional facility in Berks County, Pa., which can hold about 80 individuals.

The T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, stopped holding families in 2009 after lawsuits exposed poor conditions for children. Friday’s announcement marks the first time that immigration officials have expanded the use of family detention centers in more than five years.

Mayorkas emphasized that the new facilities would be equipped to detain families humanely, and that officials will also use alternatives to detention, such as ankle monitors for those released pending immigration court proceedings.

He said 39,000 adults had been caught crossing the southwestern border with children from Oct. 1, 2013, the start of the federal government’s fiscal year, through the end of May. Another 52,000 unaccompanied children had been caught as of June 15, he said.

Mayorkas said deploying National Guard troops to the border, as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and others requested Friday, would not help.

“The question before us is how can we make the process more efficient given the surge in the number of individuals who are being apprehended, and how can we address those individuals in terms of their humanitarian claims for relief,” Mayorkas said. “That is not a process in which the National Guard is involved.”

The White House announcement came just hours after Boehner sent a letter to the president blaming his policies for the surge in illegal border crossings. “The policies of your administration have directly resulted in the belief by these immigrants that once they reach U.S. soil, they will be able to stay here indefinitely,” Boehner wrote.

Boehner called for the administration to, among other things, “find a way to ensure that apprehended adults and their family members do in fact appear for their deportation hearings.”

He also urged the administration to work with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to develop “an aggressive communications effort to fully articulate the dangers and struggles children and families will face if they attempt to migrate to the U.S.” He also wrote that the Mexican government’s “lax enforcement” of its own southern border was contributing to the flow.

The issue has moved center stage on Capitol Hill, with a hearing scheduled for Tuesday and lawmakers moving to allocate tens of millions of dollars to respond to the crisis.

Separately, a group of House GOP leaders also sent a letter to Obama on Friday calling for, among other things, broadcasting public service announcements on U.S.-based, Spanish-speaking television reporting on the deprivations and dangers of crossing from Central America through Mexico to the United States.

Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Antonio, Simon from Washington. Staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.

Photo: Don Bartletti via Los Angeles Times/MCT

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Republicans Blame Obama For Border Crisis

Republicans Blame Obama For Border Crisis

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Simon

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Republicans are challenging the president’s characterization of the surge in young immigrants from Central America across the southern border as an unforeseen crisis, accusing his administration of contributing to the influx and demanding that he deploy National Guard troops and other resources to secure the border.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday called the flood of unaccompanied minors across the U.S.-Mexico border a “failure of diplomacy.”

“I’ve known about this for two years. The president has known about this,” Perry said during a briefing in Washington.

Since October, 47,000 children have been caught crossing the southern border alone, a more than 90 percent increase from last year, federal officials said. The number of unaccompanied children caught could reach 90,000 this year, with many crossing here in the Rio Grande Valley.

President Barack Obama has called the situation a humanitarian crisis and ordered federal agencies to coordinate a response.

On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with Central American officials in Guatemala to try to stem the flow of migrants north, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is expected to visit Brownsville.

Critics say that’s not enough.

Perry and other Texas officials this week authorized an increase in border security by the state’s Department of Public Safety. The department will use existing resources, plus $1.3 million extra per week, to increase staffing and overtime along the border. It does not plan to erect any new checkpoints, department spokesman Tom Vinger said.

Critics note that young migrants are heading north not just to flee deteriorating economic and security conditions in Central America, but also lured by rumors that they will be granted permisos, permission to stay legally.

They say these rumors originated with Obama’s executive order creating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that allowed children who had immigrated illegally to delay deportation.

“We are essentially incentivizing the flow of this population by not returning the unaccompanied juveniles to their countries of origins quickly. Indeed, once they arrive in the United States, we try to find sponsors for them in this country, and they effectively stay here permanently,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said on the House floor this week.

Cole is also upset that, with shelter space in Texas scarce, migrant children are being flown to a temporary shelter opened last month at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill.

Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cornyn (R-Texas), also blamed Obama’s policies for contributing to the border crisis and called on him to swiftly curtail it.

Cornyn had yet to receive a response Thursday from the chiefs of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to a list of questions he sent the day before concerning the influx of young immigrants.

Among the questions in his letters, which were co-written by Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley:

“Has the surge in illegal border crossers and the number of unaccompanied alien children apprehended by DHS diverted critical resources away from your department’s border security and national security objectives? What is your department’s plan to ensure that transnational criminal organizations do not exploit the vulnerabilities exposed by the crisis on our southern border?”

Aaron Pena, a lawyer who lives in the valley and served in the Texas state Legislature as both a Democrat and a Republican, said he had been disappointed by Obama’s response to the border crisis.

“He just doesn’t seem to care — it’s not a priority to him,” Pena said Thursday, adding that it seems the president “just wants to ignore it.”

At a briefing Thursday in Washington, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), responded to such criticism, saying that the increase in unaccompanied children started long before the Senate passed immigration legislation last year and before Obama created DACA two years ago.

“None of the unaccompanied children crossing our border would be eligible for DACA,” he said. “Why are they coming if it isn’t the lure of these laws? They’re fleeing for their lives.”

He noted that the children weren’t just fleeing to the United States but also seeking refuge in Mexico and other neighboring countries.

“These are kids who are coming here because of what’s happening in their own country,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), said. “I just hope that at some point, we’ll be able to put these polarizing arguments aside and look at it from the basis of what the facts are and how we can realistically address this issue.”

Photo: Ed Schipul via Flickr

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Shinseki Says VA Hospitals Will Extend Hours, Hold Personnel Accountable

Shinseki Says VA Hospitals Will Extend Hours, Hold Personnel Accountable

By Richard Simon and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki called in leaders of veterans groups Thursday and pledged to keep VA hospitals open nights and weekends if necessary to set up speedy appointments for veterans whose long waits for medical care triggered a departmental crisis.

As bipartisan pressure mounted in Congress for his resignation, Shinseki said he would announce as soon as Friday new steps to hold VA employees accountable, including personnel changes and the option for veterans to seek private-sector care, according to participants at the hourlong meeting.

“I got the idea that there might be some heads that will roll,” said Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans’ Washington office. “I think they realize the urgency.”

Shinseki’s fate could be determined by the preliminary findings of an audit he ordered of the VA health-care system, which he is expected to deliver to the White House, perhaps Friday.

A report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General on Wednesday found systemic problems throughout the hospital network in scheduling veterans for medical care, including manipulating records to hide long waits for appointments.

Veterans at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, which the report focused on, waited an average of 115 days for appointments.

The report also disclosed that the investigation had expanded to 42 sites, up from the 26 previously stated.

In Texas, meanwhile, Republican Sen. John Cornyn said he sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling for the FBI to lead the investigation into allegations that VA employees falsified records to cover up long waits.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney stopped short of declaring Obama’s full confidence in Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, saying that the president has “made clear that he believes there ought to be accountability once we establish all the facts.”

The firestorm surrounding Shinseki heated up, with calls for his resignation from members of both parties, including at least 11 Democratic senators, a number of whom face tough re-election campaigns.

Derek Bennett, chief of staff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of the veterans groups that met with the VA chief Thursday, said Shinseki “did not seem to me to be shaken by the recent drumbeat from both sides of the aisle for his resignation.”

But Bennett said the meeting “did nothing to restore confidence” in the secretary to fix the problems.

“We do not doubt the secretary’s sincerity in wanting to fix the problem, but we still have serious questions about whether the secretary has the tools, resources and the confidence of VA staff and veterans to create real reform,” he said.

Augustine said Shinseki was upfront. “He started out the meeting by saying, ‘Look, I’m a general. I had to look at crises all the time, and maybe I’m not as dramatic as some would like, but that’s just who I am. But I can assure you that this is very upsetting, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.’”

Cornyn, who met in Houston with about a dozen local veterans and leaders of veteran groups Thursday, said he wanted the FBI to investigate allegations by Texas VA employees that managers received bonuses after concealing wait times for appointments.

“When you hear the leadership at the VA are receiving bonuses only for cooking the books, to me that speaks of corruption,” Cornyn said.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.: “I believe it is now time for the Department of Justice to assess the criminality of these facts to ensure this blatant manipulation of patient wait times … does not go unpunished.”

Although the VA inspector general has said his office is working with the Justice Department, Cornyn said “the breadth and complexity of these problems very likely exceeds the capabilities of any IG office.”

Reginald White, a retired longtime Houston VA cardiology supervisor, told the gathering how high-level VA managers had profited by artificially reducing wait times to improve their annual evaluations and receive bonuses, even as veterans suffered without care.

“A lot of individuals will do what they have to do to inflate that and make it look good to get that bonus,” White said.

Dr. Joseph Spann, who recently retired from the VA in Austin, Texas, after 17 years, this week discussed his recent letter to VA investigators accusing a doctor manager at a facility in nearby Temple, Texas, of directing doctors to manipulate patient appointments to hide treatment delays.

“I saw patients waiting for cancer evaluations, for staging for (CT scans) or MRIs, even ultrasounds. They would have to wait for several weeks, more weeks than I felt comfortable with,” Spann said. “If someone told you that you had cancer, would you want to wait several weeks for treatment?”

Spann said VA officials cleared the doctor involved and dismissed the problem as a training issue.

He disagreed, insisting that, as a Texas VA clerk has claimed, supervisors routinely broke the rules and instructed staff to adjust patient appointment dates.

Spann is now assisting IG investigators.

In Washington, Carney was peppered with questions at Thursday’s briefing about the VA scandal and said the president expected to see “action taken immediately.”

“The president’s focused first and foremost on the need to address the problems that have impeded the quality and speed of care and benefits that our veterans have been receiving,” he said. “He is also committed to making sure that people are held accountable if it is established that there was misconduct or mismanagement. But we can take action on the former while we await assessments on the latter.”

Also Thursday, Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., said: “The controversy over Gen. Shinseki’s leadership has taken attention away from the real issue: the need for swift, decisive action to reform the VA, change its culture and ensure that we provide quality, timely services for our veterans.”

Although numerous Republicans have called for Shinseki to step down, House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday: “The question I ask myself is, is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what’s really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons