Three members of Berks County's delegation to the House of Representatives gathered Tuesday in an effort to learn more about the local housing of Central American children who entered the United States illegally.
Jim Gerlach (6th District), Charlie Dent (15th District), and Patrick Meehan (7th District), all Republican members of Congress, visited the Bethany Children's Home in Heidelberg Township, near Womelsdorf.
The home, which sits in Gerlach's district, has been, in recent weeks, providing temporary shelter to up to 32 of the more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America who have illegally crossed the Mexican-American border this year, officials said.
The lawmakers, anticipating the number will continue to climb, spent time with children at Bethany on Tuesday and said many of them have tragic stories about their journey to America.
"Apparently, she has nightmares at night," Dent said of one girl. "She cannot swim, and crossing rivers on makeshift rafts, it is really heartbreaking, heart-wrenching stories, tragic."
Bethany's involvement in the current border crisis came about in mid-June when the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, awarded a three-year grant to the home, officials said.
Gerlach, Dent and Meehan said they plant to sponsor legislation, with their priority being to tighten border security. They also want to provide funding for the children to be treated humanely at places like Bethany, to expedite the removal process and to work with the Central American countries where they are coming from.
"We also have to put greater pressure on these home countries like Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, that they need to do a better job of preventing the out-migration of these kids to begin with and having better opportunities for them and their families in their own home countries," Gerlach said.
The lawmakers also plan to possibly look at adjusting the U.S.'s current laws. Right now, anyone who crosses from Canada or Mexico is turned away or returned within a day or two, but because of a 2008 anti-trafficking law, that is not the case for those from Central America.
"The children do not necessarily even avoid contact at the border. In fact, they solicit it so that they get into the hands of the American government, so to speak," Meehan said.
The congressmen said they hope to have immigration legislation in the works in the next week or so.