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He even publicly committed to meet with Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, which represents interior enforcement agents and officers.

“Since taking office six months ago, Secretary Johnson has clearly articulated his vision for the Homeland Security department and demonstrated his steadfast commitment to greater transparency, improving relationships with Congress and engaging the greater public on important homeland security issues, including immigration,” a department official said.

He’s tried to push transparency by having ICE, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security itself release their use-of-force policies for agents and officers.

Mr. Johnson is also in the middle of a review, mandated by President Obama, to try to inject a more humane approach into the government’s deportation policies. So far he’s done little to tip his hand about what he might recommend — though immigrant-rights activists say he is under intense pressure to announce a broad halt to deportations as soon as possible.

Mr. Obama asked Mr. Johnson to delay announcing the results of the review until at least the end of July so as not to spook congressional Republicans, who are still debating whether to try to pass immigration legislation this year.

For now, that leaves the surge in children trying to jump the border as the most prominent problem facing the new secretary.

The scope has only become clear in recent weeks, with his department’s demographers estimating more than 90,000 unaccompanied children will be apprehended on the border this fiscal year, and more than 140,000 next year.

Agents say many of the children are actually turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents knowing that they will be processed and turned over to relatives here in the U.S. or placed with foster families, all with the chance to apply for asylum or even a special juvenile visa.

Mr. Johnson doesn’t have much leeway — federal law requires his agents turn the children over to social workers within 72 hours, and while they are still subject to deportation, they are sent to live with relatives or foster families.

And there’s little the administration can do to stem the violent conditions or poor economies pushing many of the children to flee Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But Mr. Johnson is targeting the smuggling cartels that are facilitating much of the traffic, and which are spreading rumors of a potential amnesty for those that make it into the U.S.

A department official said Mr. Johnson has called for “criminally targeting” the smuggling networks, making that a top priority.

Already facing a morale problem within ICE, Mr. Johnson now must also manage a morale problem within the Border Patrol, where agents say they are disheartened to be pulled off the line to “baby-sit” the children — only to know that most of them are going to be released to relatives in the U.S. anyway.

It’s not just the children where the border numbers are looking worse. Overall apprehensions on the border are up for a third straight year, according to the latest statistics — 74 percent in the Rio Grande Valley, which is where most of the children are entering, and 15 percent borderwide.

Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Arizona Republicans who are watching the influx in their state, said in a joint statement that the numbers are a stark reminder of the work still to do on the border: “For too long this administration has been preoccupied with telling Americans the border is as secure as ever. These events prove it is not.”