Facing pressure to address a widening crisis on the Southwest border, the Obama administration announced new measures Friday to detain, process and ultimately deport the growing numbers of Central American children and families who already are overwhelming most existing federal detention facilities.
The Department of Homeland Security said it was rushing additional lawyers, asylum officers and immigration judges to the Texas border, where most of the new immigrants are arriving, to process cases more quickly and reduce the large numbers of those who must be released with promises to appear at later court hearings.
"We are surging resources to increase our capacity to detain individuals and adults with children, and to handle immigration court hearings," Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a Friday briefing.
So far this fiscal year, more than 39,000 adults have been caught crossing the Southwest border with children. An additional 52,000 unaccompanied children had been detained as of last week, and by year's end officials expect that number to have increased to as many as 90,000.
With shelters and detention centers already overcrowded, many new immigrants have been released to sponsors and family members with orders to appear for hearings later, prompting critics to say that many will elect to quietly remain within the U.S. The Department of Justice reported that 33% of immigrants released in such cases in fiscal year 2013 failed to appear for subsequent hearings, up from 24% in 2009.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday called for deploying an additional 1,000 National Guard troops on the Texas-Mexico border, along with Lakota helicopters and Predator drones. "The safety and security of our border communities is being threatened by this flood of illegal immigration, and the crisis worsens by the day," the Republican said in a letter asking President Obama to travel to Texas to address the issue.
Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials met Friday with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in Guatemala City in the second prong of the administration's strategy, aimed at helping Central American nations alleviate the poverty and crime believed to have helped drive the exodus toward the United States. The plan calls for $40 million in U.S. aid to reduce youth involvement in gangs and promote other security improvements.
Similar programs are aimed at El Salvador and Honduras, which also are seeing expanded migrant outflows.
The number of Central American children caught crossing the border illegally last year surpassed the number from Mexico — 21,000 from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, compared with about 17,000 from Mexico.
Under U.S. law, unaccompanied Mexican children can be returned to their homeland immediately, but children from other countries must first be taken into U.S. custody. By law, Customs and Border Protection can hold them for only 72 hours, after which they must be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which finds beds for them in temporary shelters.
More than 90% of the children are later placed with a relative or sponsor, according to statistics provided by Kids in Need of Defense, a legal advocacy group.
Mayorkas could not say Friday how many released detainees were showing up for subsequent immigration court proceedings.
By law, those arriving now are interviewed to see whether they are eligible for asylum. They can claim they have a "credible fear" of returning home that immigration courts must address before they can be deported, posing a challenge to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies as the numbers increase.
Mayorkas said the government would be sending more officers to hear these asylum claims and screen out those ineligible.
"Many individuals from Central America are found to be ineligible for these forms of protections and are, in fact, promptly removed," he said.
But according to a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 58% of children arriving from Mexico and Central America are probably eligible for humanitarian protection under international conventions.
A similar study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group, estimates that about 40% were eligible for some form of immigration relief — such as asylum, special immigrant juvenile status or visas for victims of crime or trafficking.
As security and gang truces deteriorate in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, those fleeing may argue that they are afraid to return because they or their relatives were threatened for not joining a gang, said Stephen Legomsky, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
"I could easily imagine a significant number of these people showing credible fear," Legomsky said, which could lead to added delays since federal immigration courts are already backlogged.
"The administration is in a tough spot," he said.
Though immigrant rights advocates oppose expanding family detentions, some also acknowledged Friday that the crisis had put the administration in a bind.
"We need to recognize that they have to take some action in either expediting cases or finding some resolution in who's coming and why," said Michelle Brane, director of detention and asylum at the Women'sÖ Refugee Commission.
Congress in 2005 directed Homeland Security officials to keep immigrant families together, either by releasing them or detaining them as a group in humane settings.
Two years later, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the department, saying it was for illegally imprisoning families with children younger than the age of 17 under inhumane conditions at the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Texas. The lawsuits were settled, and the center stopped housing families.
The government currently operates only one immigrant family detention center, in Berks County, Pa. Brane praised the facility, but said it can only house 96 people at most, and only for weeks or months at a time.
Officials plan to house more families at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M. The facility, which is used for training federal officers, is being outfitted to hold up to 700 parents with children who are in removal proceedings, officials said Friday.
Brane said immigrant rights advocates were concerned that at the new detention centers, immigrant families would not have adequate access to attorneys. They also worry that judges and government lawyers will be sent to hear families' cases there instead of at courthouses, where immigrants, apart from their children and guards, can speak more freely about sensitive subjects such as domestic and sexual abuse.
But she said the new facilities would be preferable to keeping immigrants in overcrowded Border Patrol stations, where officials this week lead reporters on a tour, displaying children corralled behind high chain-link fences and sleeping on concrete floors under grubby blankets.
"My hope would be ... that they use it to get families out of Border Patrol stations for processing people into alternatives to detention programs where they can file their claim and go through the process," she said of the new detention centers.
Advocates have also asked the administration to expand cheaper, less restrictive alternatives to detention, such as releasing immigrants and keeping tabs on them by telephone or electronic ankle monitors.
Mayorkas said alternative monitoring would be used, though it's not clear how extensively.
Administration officials said the effort to halt the immigration tide would deal not only with combating crime and poverty but also with working to halt widespread rumors among Central Americans that immigrants with families will be allowed to remain in the U.S.
"We're doing everything possible both to support countries in stemming the tide of this migration, but also to deal with the misinformation that is being deliberately planted by criminal organizations, by smuggling networks, about what people can expect if they come to the United States. That is misinformation that is being promulgated and put forward in a very deliberate way," said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
The financial pledges also include $9.6 million to help Central American governments receive and integrate deported immigrants, $25 million in El Salvador to create 77 outreach centers to prevent at-risk youths from joining gangs or migrating to the U.S., and $18.5 million in Honduras to fight gangs and support community policing.
But Perez Molina took a view that seemed to undermine Biden's message. The Guatemalan president said via his Twitter account that Biden had promised a special program of legal assistance to Guatemalan families in the U.S. who are reunited with their children.
The Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, didn't attend the meeting because he is in Brazil for the World Cup, in which the Honduran national soccer team is competing. That drew a miffed rebuke from the U.S. ambassador.
Congressional officials greeted the new administration measures with a mix of skepticism and relief.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has been calling for some of the same measures, and said he was pleased to see the administration moving to work with Central American leaders to deport families in a quick, humane way. Cuellar discussed the crisis with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson before Johnson traveled to Texas on Friday with senior administration officials to visit Border Patrol facilities and a new temporary shelter for immigrant youths here at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
"I'm encouraged that the White House is now getting engaged on this humanitarian crisis," Cuellar said. "They're starting to move in the right direction."
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) welcomed the administration taking a "hard look at addressing the root causes of this crisis" but expressed concern about opening new family detention facilities. "To say that a child who is apprehended at the border with their parent must remain locked up throughout their judicial proceeding is simply a step too far," he said.
Republicans, who have criticized Obama in recent days for stoking the influx, remained skeptical Friday that the administration would follow through on promises to more swiftly enforce immigration laws and curtail the flow of vulnerable migrants.
"This humanitarian crisis is one of the president's own making. After years of ignoring the law and sending a very dangerous message to Central American families, the administration is finally taking small steps to address this enormous problem," Texas Republican and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn said. "It remains to be seen if the president will follow through."