The flood of young children pouring across the southwestern border is worse than the administration has previously acknowledged, and efforts to deal with unaccompanied minors are overwhelming the Border Patrol, distracting it from going after smugglers and other illegal immigrants, according to an internal draft memo from the agency.
The four-page memo, authored by Deputy Border Patrol Chief Ronald D. Vitiello and dated May 30, contradicts the administration's argument that the border is secure enough to begin legalizing current illegal aliens already in the U.S.
Instead, Chief Vitiello paints a picture of a government struggling to cope, leaving the children suffering poor conditions, agents unable to focus on major security threats and little sense that it will get better.
Known within the Homeland Security Department as Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC), their numbers have skyrocketed this year, forcing the department to siphon manpower and money from its other critical border duties.
"The large quantity of DHS interdiction, intelligence, investigation, processing, detention and removal resources currently being dedicated to address UAC is compromising DHS capabilities to address other transborder criminal areas, such as human smuggling and trafficking and illicit drug, weapons, commercial and financial operations," Chief Vitiello wrote in the memo, which was viewed by The Washington Times.
"Insufficient attention to these mission areas will have immediate and potentially long-lasting impacts on criminal enterprise operations within the Rio Grande Valley and across the country," Chief Vitiello wrote.
According to the draft memo's estimates, agents and officers will apprehend more than 90,000 unaccompanied children on the border this year, rising to 142,000 in 2015. By contrast, there were fewer than 40,000 caught last year.
The numbers represent a stunning percentage of the illegal crossers — and only account for those caught. An unknown number get by the Border Patrol and make their way into the interior of the country.
Chiefly from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, they are usually fleeing horrendous poverty or gang violence. They brave harsh conditions and, in the case of the girls, often face being raped, during their journey through Mexico and across the U.S. border.
A Customs and Border Protection official said the memo was "an internal, incomplete working document, neither signed nor made official."
But the official acknowledged the large increase in unaccompanied children crossing the border and the intense steps being taken to combat it.
"The rising flow of unaccompanied children and family units into the Rio Grande Valley present unique operational and resource challenges for CBP and [the Department of Health and Human Services]," the official told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity.
Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress the problem is a top priority for him.
"I have been closely following this emerging issue since coming into office, with a particular focus on the Rio Grande Valley," he said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee. "I traveled to McAllen, Texas, to view the situation and saw the children there firsthand — an overwhelming number of whom were under 12 years old."
Earlier this week he and the White House announced that the government's emergency management director will coordinate the response to the flood of children.
For now, the administration appears focused on managing the children when they arrive. Officials offered few options — other than asking for help from neighboring Latin American countries — for how to stop the flow.
But Chief Vitiello offered a solution in his memo — albeit one that clashes with the administration's public priorities.
"To stem the flow, adequate consequences must be delivered for illegal entry into the U.S. and for facilitating human smuggling, either as a direct member of an illicit alien-smuggling organization or as a private facilitator," he wrote. "These consequences must be delivered both at the border and within the interior U.S.," through such means as "expanded ICE Homeland Security Investigations to target individuals facilitating UAC and family unit travel to the U.S."
Jerry Kammer, senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which obtained the memo, said it shows an administration incapable of enforcing the border.
He said that should be a warning sign to those who want border security to be part of any immigration deal struck in Congress.
Mr. Kammer said he voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 but has been disappointed.
"I had high hopes for his administration and the possibility it could find the difficult middle ground to resolve our immigration dilemma," he said. "But now I think that anybody who believes after watching this chaos at the border that this administration would be serious about enforcing the other half of the comprehensive immigration reform is in the middle of a pipe dream."
While some of the unaccompanied children are from Mexico, most are from Central America, which makes them tougher to process. Mexicans can be returned across the border, but those from Central America must be screened and processed.
They are required to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of being apprehended, but the draft memo suggests that isn't happening, both because of the large numbers of children and because of intergovernmental snafus.
For example, HHS is now using buildings on military bases to house the children — but Defense Department rules require that the children be vaccinated and then held for seven days by Homeland Security before being allowed on base.
That suggests that the 72-hour rule is regularly being broken.
Chief Vitiello's memo also said the CBP processing centers in the Rio Grande Valley, where most of the crossings occur, are overwhelmed and that there aren't enough flights from the region to carry the illegal immigrant children to processing centers elsewhere.
In what's labeled a "partial solution," Mr. Vitiello said the Coast Guard has begun providing a daily flight from the Rio Grande Valley to alternate locations, and he said starting later this month Homeland Security will begin using a facility in Houston, where there are more flights available, to process the children.
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