In an attempt to stem a crush of Central American children illegally crossing the United States alone into south Texas, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Thursday that he was in contact with ambassadors in Latin America to discuss how to more quickly return those children to their home countries.
"Those apprehended at our border are priorities for removal," Johnson said during a Washington news conference. "They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws regardless of age."
Johnson, who said he was in discussions with officials in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico about faster repatriation, also announced several other strategies to address the surge of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. illegally. Though illegal immigration overall has been down in recent years, a rise in the number of unaccompanied minors has taken authorities by surprise.
Through May, 47,000 children have entered the country alone this year. That's already double from last year, and the number is expected to go high as 90,000.
Some of the initiatives announced by Johnson included beefing up staffing of federal officials to go after human smugglers and searching for additional facilities to temporarily house children who are fleeing primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — countries with long-standing poverty and escalating violence.
Johnson said that increase correlates with an overall rise in illegal immigration into the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas. Most of those migrants are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Johnson's announcement came just as two state attorneys general — from Texas and Arizona — issued public letters to Johnson with several demands.
Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott requested $30 million from Homeland Security to pay for state resources that can be rushed to the Texas border. The Border Patrol is "overwhelmed," he said, and needs the assistance quickly.
"With the Border Patrol's focus shifted to this crisis, we have grave concerns that dangerous cartel activity, including narcotics smuggling and human trafficking, will go unchecked because Border Patrol resources are stretched too thin," Abbott wrote.
Arizona Atty. Gen. Tom Horne's letter addressed a separate surge of single parents with children illegally entering the U.S. in southern Texas. Unable to house the influx of families, federal immigration authorities have been taking them to Arizona, where they have been released at bus stations in Phoenix and Tucson under orders to report to an immigration official in the near future.
Horne threatened a lawsuit, demanding that Homeland Security "cease and desist" the practice.
"There does not appear to be any lawful authority for such arbitrary and injurious actions," Horne said. "To the contrary, given that transporting an alien under these circumstances would be a federal crime … if done by a citizen, it is far beyond the federal government's discretionary authority to detain or release a removable alien under Title VIII of the United States Code."
Homeland Security officials did not immediately comment on Horne's letter.
At the news conference, Johnson did say that federal officials were doing their best to address the immediate needs of what he called a "problem of humanitarian proportion in the Rio Grande Valley sector."
Johnson took the opportunity to warn people against coming to the U.S. illegally, stating that they are not eligible for immigration relief under legislation before Congress. Nor are the newcomers eligible, he said, for an Obama administration deferred-deportation program that gives immigration relief to youth who came to the United States as children and stayed illegally.
Johnson, who said he first learned about the increase in unaccompanied minors last fall, also sent a special message to parents thinking about smuggling their children into the country.
"Of those who may have children in Central America that they want to reunite with … illegal migration is not safe," Johnson said. "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."