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Homeland Security secretary details response to flood of immigrant kids

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing that the administration is considering all lawful options to deal with the surge of unaccompanied immigrant children at the Southwest border. (Cronkite News Service photo by Aubree Abril)

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing that the administration is considering all lawful options to deal with the surge of unaccompanied immigrant children at the Southwest border. (Cronkite News Service photo by Aubree Abril)

WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that Arizona officials should have been notified before hundreds of immigrant children and families were shipped to Nogales for processing – instead of learning about it in news reports.

“It shouldn’t have happened that way. The congressional delegation, local officials should have gotten notice,” Johnson said, in response to a question from Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, about a lack of notification.

“And I’ve instructed my staff that when we have to go to these places, we give the congressional delegation and local officials advance information about that,” he said.

The comments came during a packed House Homeland Security Committee hearing about the flood of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central American countries who are crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley. The flow of migrants has outstripped the capacity of the Border Patrol in Texas, leading to some of those children being sent to Nogales and elsewhere.

Johnson, flanked by officials from Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, detailed federal efforts to deal with the influx, but spent much of the 2.5-hour hearing fending off Republican charges that the surge can be laid to lax immigration enforcement.

Critics said DACA – the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which delays deportation of longtime immigrants who were brought here as children – has encouraged the belief that children who cross the border illegally now will be allowed to stay.

“I do believe that DACA and our immigration laws are the cause of this,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa. “But I don’t blame just the president for not enforcing our immigration laws…. It’s even members of Congress.

“Any member of Congress that starts talking about a pathway to amnesty, and that’s what it is, lays out the welcome mat for people around the world that want to come into the United States illegally,” Barletta said.

But Johnson repeated the administration’s insistence that DACA applies only to those brought here, who have lived here for at least seven years – not those coming over now.

“When you’re apprehended at the border, regardless of age, you’re a priority for removal,” Johnson said.

He said the administration is working with officials in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to make clear that recent border crossers are priorities for deportation. That point was driven home over the weekend by Vice President Joe Biden in a trip to Guatemala.

Johnson said that trip, and an “open letter” to those parents who would send their children north, aims to counter “disinformation” spread by human traffickers that children will be allowed to stay in the U.S.

“There is this disinformation out there that there is a permisos,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing, permisos, free pass, like you get a piece of paper that says, ‘Welcome to the United States. You’re free.’ That’s not the case.”

Johnson said in addition to the current federal response, he is considering every “conceivable, lawful option” to address the problem.

Barber said he is concerned not only for the children who are coming across, but also about the implications for border security from the strain on law enforcement resources.

“The people I represent, particularly those who live and work along the border, are really concerned about their safety,” he said. “The concern they’ve expressed to me is that as Border Patrol agents have been pulled in to the Nogales station in particular to care for these children, we have compromised their ability to secure the border and keep people safe.”

Johnson, who is scheduled to visit Nogales Wednesday, said he plans to find out whether personnel in Arizona are being diverted from duties on the border to address the situation in Nogales.

“Are we having to divert Border Patrol personnel from their border patrol duties? It’s very important to me that we minimize the circumstances of that,” Johnson said.

Turning back the tide

Homeland Security Jeh Johnson outlined actions he said the government is taking to stem the recent surge of unaccompanied immigrant children who are crossing the Southwest border.

1. Draw on additional resources across Homeland Security to supplement Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

2. Create a coordination group from the departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services.

3. Increase capacity to house and process children.

4. Increase Spanish-speaking case-management staff.

5. Increase detention capacity for adults who cross at the Rio Grande Valley with children.

6. Find more ways to transport immigrants, including leasing planes and using Coast Guard aircraft.

7. Provide health screenings to all those in the DHS and HHS facilities.

8. Coordinate with volunteer and faith-based organizations, through FEMA, to help manage the influx.

9. Work with governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to stem the migration and ensure faster repatriation.

10. Provide DHS and Justice resources to investigate, prosecute and dismantle smuggling rings that bring migrants to the U.S.

11. Mount public affairs campaigns in Spanish on the dangers of sending children across the border or putting them in the hands of traffickers.

12. Increase the Rio Grande Valley staffing for Customs and Border Protection.

13. Put together a framework to enhance border security.

14. Continue to work closely with Congress.

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