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Rick Perry says youths crossing the border is a 'side issue'

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
  • Many call the border situation a humanitarian crisis; Texas Gov. Rick Perry calls it a "side issue"
  • He is more focused on criminals crossing the border than the flood of children
  • PolitiFact said his statistics about undocumented criminals are incorrect

(CNN) -- As migrant children continue to cross the border into the United States, dominating the immigration debate this summer, Texas Gov. Rick Perry says that's a sideshow and maintains that the real issue at the border is the wave of criminals who have crossed over it.

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, said Sunday morning on NBC's "Meet the Press" that politicians in Washington "have to deal with the immediate crisis right now," referring to the migrant children border crossings. But Perry said on CNN's "State of the Union" that the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, mostly into Texas, is a "side issue."

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Numerous politicians have said the 62,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed into Texas is a humanitarian crisis. The situation is overloading holding facilities and taxing the immigration system -- all of which is costing an additional hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars.

Perry, meanwhile, said he is "substantially more concerned about" criminals crossing a porous border.

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"That's the real issue here, and one that all too often gets deflected by the conversation about unaccompanied minor children," he said Sunday.

Criminal border-crossers is a theme Perry has been hitting since he announced in late July that he would send up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the border to help "combat" crime.

He restated that position Sunday in an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley. "We'll continue to do what we have to do to keep our citizens safe," he said.

Once again, he said that criminals in the United States illegally are responsible for 3,000 homicides and nearly 8,000 sexual assaults since 2008.

But PolitiFact Texas fact-checked the statistics and concluded that the statement "is both incorrect and ridiculous." Perry told Crowley he stands by those statistics.

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Perry's crime statistics have been debunked, the rate of undocumented immigrants crossing the border is at its lowest since the early 1980s and most other politicians are focused on the fact that more than twice as many migrant children crossed the border this year than last. So why is Perry focusing on criminals?

Republican strategist Ana Navarro, whose job it is to analyze and craft Republican political strategy, said she has "no idea" why Perry is focused on crime. "I had a hard time following his train of thought," she added.

But Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez said Perry focuses on the criminal component of the border issue because it is one component of the larger problem at the border.

"The (Obama) administration's weak stand over the past six years produced an environment where exactly this type of crisis unfurls," she said.

Perry, whose term is up this year, is considering another run at the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. His previous White House campaign was crippled partly because of the Republican voter base's displeasure with a law he signed more than a decade ago giving children of undocumented immigrants in-state college tuition.

In addition to violent criminals, Perry indicated Sunday that terrorists are using a porous southern border to enter the United States. His statement was backed up by Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said on "State of the Union," that "we believe (people who) are connected in some way with terrorist organizations at least having the understanding ... it is a weakness in our national security."

It's the same argument that was made after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and spurred the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and doubling the amount spent on border security and border patrol agents.

Perry's focus, however, has evolved over the course of the debate over migrant youths.

Just one month ago, during a congressional hearing held near the border, Perry sounded a different tune. He lectured members of Congress that they need to work with President Barack Obama to address the influx of unaccompanied minors.

"The President has bypassed Congress -- and maybe he could and should, I don't know, I'm not going to wade in -- but this is the one time that I really think the President does need all of you, Democrats and Republicans alike, to be working with you and reaching out," he said on July 3.

But since then, Perry has chosen to focus solely on the need for greater border security and protection to tamp down on crime and illegal border crossings, even though the total number of undocumented immigrants has mostly declined.

While the number of youths has more than doubled in just one year, the total number of immigrants had continued to drop over the past eight years to about 400,000, compared with about 1 million each year from 1983 until 2006.

By focusing only on border security, Perry safely toes the Republican position and is in line with many Americans.

On the issue of immigration since the migrant youth crisis, polling shows Americans' priorities have shifted. According to a July CNN/ORC poll, 51% now say the government's focus on immigration policy should be formulating a plan to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants rather than dealing with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are here.

But the issue of children is more complicated. The same poll found contradictions in people's opinions. While 54% of respondents supported spending "several billion dollars" to care for the children while they waited an immigration judge, 62% of the same people surveyed also supported a bill that would make it easier to deport them.

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