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DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson Defends Response to Border Children

The partisan divide over border security and children arriving at the border is on display as Congress holds three hearings this week on the issue.

Hoping to mollify critical Republicans, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told a House panel Tuesday he plans to add 115 Customs and Border Protection agents in South Texas and is considering adding 150 more Border Patrol agents to deal with an influx of children and families at the border.

In addition, Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee he is beefing up an investigative unit with 60 additional criminal investigators and support personnel in San Antonio and Houston offices to dismantle smuggling organizations that are bringing the children and families to the U.S.

Although President Barack Obama declared on June 2 that the rising numbers of children crossing into the U.S. is a humanitarian situation, the administration has begun taking steps to try to stem the arrivals, including detaining families and individuals without children.

Even so, Johnson made clear that his hands are tied by law on what he can do with children who are not from bordering countries. He was pressed by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., on why the president doesn't issue an executive order superseding that law. Rogers said Johnson should be asking the Guatemalan government where it wants the children dropped off.

"Last I checked, an executive order can't supersede the law," Johnson responded.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson speaks while and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello listens during a House Homeland Security Committee on Capitol Hill, June 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on the growing number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

So far this year, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. Those from Mexico, about 12,146 through June 15, are quickly returned, but the law requires the remainder from Honduras, 15,027, Guatemala, 12,670 and El Salvador, 11,436, to be sent to temporary shelters until they can be united with families, guardians or sponsors while they await deportation and asylum hearings.

At the hearing's opening, Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, called the situation a refugee crisis "in the making for years" and "one we should have seen coming."

McCaul said economic need and violence are playing a role in driving the children to the border, but also blamed Obama administration immigration policies granting benefits to children and a "relaxed enforcement posture, along with immigration reform."

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., reminded panel members that the law dictating that the Johnson is heeding by sending Central American children to shelters was signed in 2008 by then President George W. Bush.

"For those out there who are looking for simple answers, who are looking to lay the blame on President Obama's policies" of deferred deportations for young immigrants illegally here and support for immigration reform, "I would note that neither would apply to these kids," Thompson said. "Hence, the assertion that the recent surge in unaccompanied children is due to lack of immigration enforcement does not pass the smell test."

Republican House Speaker John Boehner announced Tuesday he had formed a working group on the crisis at the border. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), one of its members, said, "We must find a humane solution to make sure these minors are both safe and healthy, while strictly adhering to the laws of this great nation."