Addressing a rising tide of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the Mexican border into the United States, U.S. officials pledged Thursday to use a framework typically used in disasters to ensure a projected 60,000 minors this year are safely detained.
In addition to deploying the Coast Guard and military to transport and help house the undocumented youths, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is talking with the ambassadors of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico to discuss "faster repatriation," he said.
More immigration judges will also be assigned for speedier removal proceedings, he said.
Johnson said that three-fourths of the unaccompanied children crossing the border come from three Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Federal law requires different treatment for undocumented minors from those nations.
Those minors aren't immediately deported as those from Mexico or Canada are now. Rather, the Central American minors are turned over to the U.S. Department Health and Human Services within 72 hours of DHS taking them into custody.
The Central American children then may end up in the care of their parents or relatives now living in the United States, and the immigrant is given a court date. But very few actually show up, and the children often become some of the millions of undocumented immigrants, said a union official for U.S. Border Patrol agents.
If U.S. officials can't find a parent or relative, the child may be placed temporarily in one of three military bases: Lackland Air Base in Texas, Ventura County Naval Base in California, or Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The minor also may be placed in the care of nonprofit groups that mostly run group homes, federal officials said.
Johnson suggested Thursday that the Central American families now believe that their undocumented children may be spared from U.S. deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, but such a belief is mistaken because the policy doesn't apply to newly arrived minors, Johnson said.
Johnson suggested immigrant families may be assuming their undocumented children would some day be eligible for a proposed pathway to citizenship, but current immigration reform proposals don't make such offers, Johnson said.
"Those apprehended at our border are priorities for removal. They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws regardless of age," Johnson said.
The large number of border crossings by children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has been declared by President Barack Obama to be "an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response."
In prior years, about 7,000 to 8,000 unaccompanied minors were caught entering the United States annually, but last year, the number grew to 24,000 and this year's projection is 60,000, federal officials said Thursday.
The minors have overwhelmed U.S. facilities on the border, which don't have enough food, beds or sanitary facilities.
Those conditions have led to alleged sexual abuse, threats of violence, strip searches and filthy conditions, according to a complaint filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and four immigrant-rights groups. Those accusations are being made by 116 minors represented by the groups.
The detention centers in Texas can no longer hold the large numbers of unaccompanied children or mothers traveling only with their children, forcing the federal government to open additional facilities.