A surge of unaccompanied children crossing the United States border in southwest Texas are not eligible for any amnesty or path to citizenship and are being transferred to the custody of the federal Health and Human Services Department, said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at a news conference Thursday.
Johnson said the goal of the federal government is to act "in the best interest of the child," but also emphasized that the children are subject to deportation. "Those who cross our borders today illegally, including children, are not eligible for an earned path to citizenship," Johnson said. "Those apprehended at our border are priorities for removal. They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws regardless of age."
If the minors aren't sent home, they could be transferred to long-term foster care or potentially reunited with family members, Johnson said. When asked whether undocumented parents living in the United States could claim children who already crossed the border and not face deportation, Johnson said children are frequently reunited with their parents, but did not clarify whether the family is then deported.
"HHS acts in the best interest of the child, which very often means reuniting that child with a parent," Johnson said.
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, mostly from crime- and corruption-ridden countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have crossed the United States border since the start of 2013, causing what President Barack Obama has described as an "urgent humanitarian effort."
Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the administration for children and families with the Department of Health and Human Services, estimated that 60,000 of these children could cross the border this year. Over 24,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border in 2013.
The influx of unaccompanied children exceeded the capacity and resources of patrol stations in Texas, and some Central American immigrants have been flown to Phoenix, Ariz., to receive temporary lodging.
A multi-department effort is attempting to transport the unaccompanied children from Customs and Border Protection custody to facilities that coordinate with HHS. Some facilities are state-owned places operated by non-profit organizations, Greenberg said.
Also Thursday, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said the agency would investigate complaints regarding allegations of border agents abusing unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Kerlikowske did not go into detail about the complaints. He also did not comment on other allegations regarding the deaths of people shot by agents near the nation's border with Mexico.
Kerlikowske praised the border agents who are dealing with the surge of youth.
"In my multiple trips with the border patrol agents, I have been watching them do absolutely heroic efforts," Kerlikowske told reporters. "They're absolutely committed to making sure that these children are treated not only in the most respectful and humane way, but frankly the most loving way."
By Patrick Gillespie
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Alaska Dispatch Publishing