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On Tuesday, he said he’s already shifted 115 experienced agents from elsewhere to help cover parts of the southwest border and said he’s considering shifting another 150.

Mr. Johnson also said his department is intensifying its public relations campaign south of the border to urge parents not to subject their children to the harrowing journey north and to try to dispel rumors that children will be eligible for legal status.

The secretary will travel to Nogales, Arizona, on Wednesday to get yet another firsthand look at the situation on the U.S. side and will travel to Guatemala next month to try to hammer out agreements to smooth the path to return children to Central America.

Meanwhile, the administration has added 60 criminal investigators to the border region to try to target smugglers.

All sides agree the smuggling cartels are spreading rumors of “permisos” in order to drum up business.

Under U.S. law, illegal immigrant children who arrive in the U.S. without parents and who are from noncontiguous countries cannot be immediately returned. Instead they are turned over to social workers, who try to place them with their own families or in foster care while they await a final decision from an immigration court.

Mr. Judd, the Border Patrol union chief, said the cartels are aware that all of those steps are overwhelming the U.S. system, and he said the gangs are exploiting that to cover their other activities.

He said if the cartels were only interested in smuggling the children in, it would be easier for them to send the children to the U.S. through official ports of entry, where they would be met by Customs and Border Protection officers.

Instead, the cartels ferry the children across the Rio Grande, drop them off and point them toward areas where the Border Patrol operates — a clear signal, Mr. Judd said, that they intend to overwhelm and distract agents from their regular patrol duties.