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WASHINGTON — The commanders of U.S. Northern and Southern Commands testified Wednesday that the United States must approach the influx of Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as a national security issue and address the problem holistically.

“We have a national security imperative right now on our southern border that we need to deal with,” said Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who leads U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.

VanHerck and Adm. Craig Faller, who leads U.S. Southern Command, told lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee that multiple factors have come together to create an environment that has driven more than 350,000 migrants to attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the first three months of 2021.

Their comments came at a full committee hearing about national security challenges and military activity in North and South America. A rising number of migrants, including unaccompanied children, are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, many to seek asylum.

“I believe it’s a confluence of multiple things that are drawing folks to our border, from transnational criminal organizations to [coronavirus] to multiple natural disasters,” Faller said.

The military officials urged lawmakers to look at migration as a “national security imperative” and the U.S. must come up with a whole of government approach to secure U.S. borders.

“The challenge is creating an environment where these folks can succeed, so they don’t have to feel like they migrate. And that takes a whole of nation approach to get after transnational criminal organizations,” VanHerck said in response to a question from Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., about the impact of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

McClain, along with some other Republicans, pushed witnesses to comment on whether Biden’s actions to reopen the southern border and “encourage migrants to illegally cross” into the United States makes the country less safe.

VanHerck did not directly comment on specific Biden policies, though he said “the administration is on a good track.”

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., pressed VanHerck to answer a question on whether strong enforcement of existing immigration laws would serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

“Our border security is national security and the laws that we have on the books would be part of contributing to overarching national security when enforced,” the general responded.

One Democrat, Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut applauded Faller’s description of the external forces — including the pandemic, natural disasters and political violence — driving large numbers of people from their homes in Central America and towards the U.S. southern border.

“Thank you for that testimony today because I frankly think coming from you, it’s a really important message that people should really think about as we try to deal with the problems at the border,” he said.

Robert Salesses, the Defense Department's acting secretary for homeland defense and global security, also said he recognizes the importance of a “whole of nation” approach.

“The Defense Department certainly can play a role in helping, but it also takes the diplomatic, the economic, the information, the law enforcement, all of that, and our partners in the South working together too to rethink this, and I think that approach can be very successful,” Salesses said.

Throughout the hearing, officials voiced concern over the continuous threat that transnational criminal networks and illicit trafficking pose to the United States.

“Transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, pose a direct threat to our national security. They traffic in arms, humans, drugs, and claim tens of thousands of lives here in the United States each year,” Faller said in his opening statement.

TCOs drive illegal migration because people look to find safety elsewhere and it also allows bad actors to gain influence, such as China, he added.

Salesses said the Pentagon should apply some of the lessons that the Defense Department has learned through developing counterterrorism mechanisms to address the issue because the focus on interdiction has not been successful.

There is a “crisis of insecurity that’s driving people to find safety elsewhere. And our approach has been one of interdiction at the source and in transit. We’re never going to interdict our way out of this,” Salesses said.

Cammarata.Sarah@Stripes.com@sarahjcamm

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