WASHINGTON -- Faced with conservative attacks that the Obama administration is to blame for a dramatic influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a plea on Thursday to parents of undocumented children: Don't send or bring them to the U.S. without authorization.
"My message to your readership, your audience of those who may have children in Central America whom they want to reunite with, is that illegal migration is not safe," Johnson told reporters at a press conference. "Illegal migration through the south Texas border is not safe. A processing center is no place for your child. Putting your child in the hands of a criminal smuggling organization is not safe."
"I am not encouraging in any way, shape or form illegal migration," Johnson added. "That's the message."
About 47,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended while crossing the southern border of the U.S. since October 2013, and the number is projected to hit 70,000 by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Numbers had been creeping up for years, but this most recent surge has proved a challenge for DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with housing the children.
The situation is considered by many to be a humanitarian crisis, but partisan finger-pointing began almost immediately after the influx began to draw broad news coverage. Some Republicans argued that President Barack Obama's immigration policies, particularly one that allows undocumented young people to apply to stay in the country, are giving the impression that children who come to the country will be welcomed.
Most of the unaccompanied minors coming through Mexico are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and they're fleeing to other countries as well as the United States. Experts say that many are likely escaping gang violence or economic stability or, in some cases, coming to the U.S. to reunite with their families.
Some critics of the president have gone so far as to argue that the government's treatment of currently detained unaccompanied minors is encouraging them to come to the country. The minors are being provided housing -- often in cramped facilities, with allegations of abuse -- and medical screenings, and government agencies have shared resources to transport them between facilities. A reporter's question to Johnson exemplified the argument that this treatment could serve as a magnet: "If you're providing these children with so many services, from transportation to health care, education, housing, even legal representation as [the Department of Justice] has announced, isn't that incentivizing people to come to this country?"
Johnson replied that he would say no, and he reiterated that the children are ineligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that gives reprieve to some young undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children, or legalization under the Senate-passed immigration bill that's currently languishing in the House. Once here, unaccompanied minors aren't eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program because it applies only to undocumented immigrants who were in the country by June 15, 2007.
Johnson said the government is running a campaign in Spanish- and English-language radio, television and print "to talk about the dangers of sending kids over the border and the dangers of putting kids into the hands of criminal smuggling organizations."
DHS is required by law to hand over undocumented minors within 72 hours to HHS, which houses them and looks for relatives in the U.S. who can care for them, but the 72-hour time frame has not been met in many cases because of the influx. This doesn't mean the undocumented minors will necessarily be allowed to remain in the country long term -- while in DHS custody, removal proceedings are started against them, according to officials -- although some might be allowed to stay based on immigration judges' decisions.
The government is increasing its staff and adding more beds to facilities that house unaccompanied minors, NBC reported this week. The administration also requested additional funding from Congress. Senate Democrats are working to increase funding for HHS to deal with unaccompanied minors, and additional funding for DHS may also come.
A complaint filed Wednesday by human rights groups alleges that border patrol agents have refused to provide diapers to infants, have made threats, strip-searched and shackled children, and have denied them medical care. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told reporters at the press conference that he had ordered an investigation into those complaints. But he also praised border agents for their work in handling the crisis, saying some have gone so far as to bring in their own children's clothing for the unaccompanied minors.
"They are absolutely committed to making sure that these children are being treated not only in the most respectful and humane way, but frankly, the most loving way," he said.