The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, told senators in Washington on Wednesday that the number of unaccompanied minors picked up since October now stands at 57,000, up from 52,000 in mid-June, and more than double what it was at the same time last year. They're coming mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, often fleeing gang violence.
The situation, Kerlikowske said, "is difficult and distressing on a lot of levels."
"We have not been what I would say successful yet" in ensuring that the unaccompanied kids are processed by the Border Patrol as quickly as required, said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate as he testified alongside Kerlikowske before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"The children continue to come across the border. It's a very fluid situation," Fugate said. "Although we have made progress, that progress is oftentimes disrupted when we see sudden influxes of kids coming in faster than we can discharge them, and we back up."
Juan Osuna, director of the executive office of immigration review at the Department of Justice, said that "we are facing the largest caseload that the agency has ever seen."
Osuna said that deportation cases involving families and unaccompanied children would be moved to the top of court dockets. That means lower priority cases will take even longer to wend through a system where there's a backlog of more than 360,000 pending deportation cases.
Obama's emergency spending request would add more judges, increase detention facilities, help care for the kids and pay for programs in Central America to try to keep them from coming.
McCain and other Republicans dismissed those measures as inadequate, saying the only way to stem the tide would be to deport the kids more rapidly.
"They will do nothing ... nothing that planeloads upon planeloads of children would do," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
The Obama administration says it wants more flexibility to turn the children around more quickly, since current law requires minors from countries other than Mexico or Canada to go through the court system in what is often a lengthy process. But immigrant advocates and some Democrats are balking at that idea, arguing that it would jeopardize the children's legal protections and put them at risk.
Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell, Julie Pace, Jim Kuhnhenn and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.