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“This intelligence report confirms what many experienced observers had feared and warned of — that not only the talk of amnesty, but also the reality that illegal crossers have been allowed to stay, is causing Central Americans and who knows who else to abandon their homes and risk their lives to take advantage of our lax policies,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director for the Center for Immigration Studies.

Civil liberties and immigrant rights advocates Wednesday filed a 25-page complaint with the Homeland Security Department about the treatment of some of the children in the care of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The complaint details dozens of stories from children who say they were denied food or water, insulted or threatened by officers, denied the chance to make an asylum claim, and physically abused.

“More than half reported the denial of medical care, including two young mothers whose infant children became sick while detained in freezing temperatures, and another child whose asthma medication was confiscated while she suffered multiple asthma attacks,” the advocacy groups wrote. “Children consistently reported being held in unsanitary, overcrowded and freezing-cold cells, and roughly 70 percent reported being held beyond the legally mandated 72-hour period.”

Although the Obama administration labels the flow of children a “humanitarian” crisis rather than an enforcement problem, Mr. Johnson said he has directed agents to go after the smuggling networks that control the traffic across the border and are thought to be responsible for encouraging Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans to cross the U.S. border.

He also said the U.S. needs a “robust” public relations campaign to discourage Central Americans from attempting the journey and to warn of the dangers along the way.

Some Republicans said Mr. Johnson and President Obama need to send a clear message.

“The president needs to state unequivocally those who come here will not be able to stay, that they will not qualify under [Deferred Action] or under any other program, and any deportation policy review will not contemplate allowing them to stay,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. “That would be, I would think, incredibly helpful. And if you could relay that message back to the president, we’re trying to do so as well.”