WASHINGTON – The White House on Monday outlined actions the government has taken in response to a recent influx of unaccompanied immigrant children that has burdened immigration facilities in Texas and led to some immigrants being transported to Arizona.
In a telephone briefing for reporters, senior administration officials said the government is opening military facilities to house children during processing and recruiting volunteer lawyers to represent the children during removal proceedings, among other actions.
It comes days after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called the practice of transferring hundreds of immigrants a “dangerous and inhumane policy,” and the same day that Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery wrote federal officials to say the practice may violate state child abuse laws.
“I urge you to first cease and desist any operation that places the health and welfare of any child, unaccompanied or not, at risk,” Montgomery’s letter said.
But an aide to Brewer said that the governor’s office was told Friday by federal officials that there are no plans to discontinue the “drop-off policy.”
“As Arizona awaits much-needed answers from the president, one thing has been made clear: This is a federal operation from head to toe, and his administration has no intention to terminate it in the foreseeable future,” Brewer spokeswoman Annie Dockendorff, said in an email.
Dockendorff said it would be “nice if the White House would respond to the letter Governor Brewer sent the Obama administration more than a week ago, before holding conference calls with the media.”
The transfer policy comes as Customs and Border Protection data show a surge in children coming from Central American countries and crossing border in the Rio Grande Valley.
“To alleviate pressure there, we have been transferring some of these children to Nogales for border patrol processing,” a senior administration official said Monday.
This process includes interviewing the children, starting removal proceedings and working to turn children over to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, said he is disappointed in the administration’s handling so far of the influx of immigrants.
“I’m very disappointed that DHS (Department of Homeland Security) did not inform the governor and the congressional delegation that this was going to happen, especially those in districts where these immigrants were dropped off,” Pastor said.
Pastor said he hopes that the facilities where immigrants are being taken improve very quickly.
“They should not be dumped at the Greyhound stations,” he said. “It’s obviously not a place that can provide for their well-being.”
Officials said facilities at Lackland Air Force base in Texas and Naval Base Ventura County in California have been opened to accommodate children. A third facility is being prepared at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, which will eventually accommodate up to 1,200 children.
Officials also discussed an initiative within the Justice Department to recruit volunteer lawyers to serve as counsel for the migrant children once Homeland Security starts removal proceedings against them.
The White House is also working the Central American countries the children are coming from in an effort slow their migration to the U.S.
“What we hear from the children themselves is that violence is a major reason they’re coming forward in this way and taking what is really a very perilous journey to reach the United States,” one official said.