Homeland Security officials announced an investigation Thursday into charges that Customs and Border Protection officers abused some of the young children surging across the U.S. border, as the government continued to struggle to get a handle on the burgeoning problem.
Department Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a stern message to parents thinking of sending their children to make the journey from Central America to the U.S., telling them the trip isn’t safe and their children won’t be eligible for legal status under either President Obama’s non-deportation policy or under the Senate’s immigration bill.
“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,” he said. “I am not encouraging in any way, shape or form, illegal migration. That’s the message.”
However, at a press conference that left many unanswered questions, he refused to say whether illegal immigrant parents in the U.S. who try to collect their children will be subject to deportation, saying only that under American law the government tries to reunite families.
The surge of children — estimated to reach more than 90,000 this year, and more than 140,000 next year, according to an internal draft memo — has left Homeland Security officials struggling to please both sides in the immigration debate.
Arizona’s attorney general wrote a letter Thursday demanding that Homeland Security stop shipping the children and other illegal immigrants from Texas, where most are crossing, to his state. Tom Horne said there is no legal basis for the transfer and he is looking to see whether he can sue the federal government.
According to an Associated Press report from Port Hueneme, California, a government official said the temporary shelter for Central American children on the naval base there could see its population triple and reach capacity next week.
Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups argue the children should be given better treatment and, in many cases, say humanitarian concerns should earn them the right to stay.
Advocates also filed a complaint this week with Mr. Johnson protesting the treatment of some of the children while in the care of 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 or even physically abused. The names were provided to the agency for follow-up investigation.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske told reporters he signed an order to start the investigation, but also said the agents he’s seen have been going beyond the call of duty.
“In my multiple trips with the BP agents, I have been watching them do absolutely heroic efforts, not only rescuing children but taking care of them way beyond some of the skill sets. They are doing everything from mixing formula to bringing in their own children’s clothing,” Mr. Kerlikowske said.
“It takes a toll on those agents, a human toll. But they are absolutely committed to making sure these children are treated in not only the most respectful and humane way, but also the most loving way,” he said.
Mr. Johnson said charities have stepped up to help the children, with the American Red Cross providing blankets and hygiene kits, and the Texas Baptist Men providing shower trailers.
The secretary also said he’s sent more investigators to the border to target smuggling organizations that are facilitating the surge, and has reinstated a public relations campaign in English and Spanish in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the three main countries responsible for the surge, pleading with parents not to make the journey or send their children alone