Faced with 60,000 unaccompanied children trying to cross the border illegally this year, President Obama on Monday declared it an “urgent humanitarian situation” and named a federal coordinator to make sure the children are cared for — but offered no new ideas for how to keep them from trying to enter.
These “unaccompanied alien children” are the latest hiccup for an administration that has asserted the border is secure, even as it struggles to balance enforcement with humanitarian concerns.
The White House signaled that, at least for now, it sees the flow of children — which it predicts will more than double in 2015 — as an issue to be managed rather than a problem to be fought.
“We are only talking about protecting these kids,” White House domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz told reporters who asked whether there were any bigger plans in the works to try to stem the flow. “These are children, and in many cases they are young children. They have just traveled from Central America to the U.S. alone.”
The children are among the toughest cases in the immigration debate.
Chiefly from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, they are usually fleeing horrendous conditions of economic poverty or unfathomable 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.
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Ms. Munoz said they’ve seen a tremendous spike in just the last month, with more girls and more children younger than 13.
Republicans said Mr. Obama is responsible for the surge because he has created an expectation south of the border that immigrants who can get across the border will be allowed to stay.
“Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in a statement.
He said the solution was more enforcement, “not another bureaucratic task force,” and he vowed to convene a hearing to look into the issue.
So did House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, who said the “administration’s lack of border enforcement has reached disastrous proportions.”
The administration has said it was trying to work with Mexico and governments in Central America, but officials were silent on those efforts Monday.
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Instead, officials said they are trying to find ways to meet the law, which calls for immigration officials to turn the children over to the Department of Health & Human Services within 72 hours after they are apprehended.
Officials have scrambled to find appropriate housing for the children and have rented space on a military base in Texas to house 1,200. Another base in California is being eyed, with space for 600 more.
Mr. Obama tapped Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate to coordinate those efforts.
Administration officials stress that the children are put in deportation proceedings and said there’s never any guarantee they can stay in the U.S. The officials also said the children won’t be eligible for either the immigration bill that passed the Senate last year or Mr. Obama’s nondeportation policy for children, both of which had cutoff dates for eligibility.
But the children can lodge claims of asylum, and some can also file for a special juvenile visa, which is available to children who cannot be reunited with parents in the U.S.
The Houston Chronicle reported this weekend that the flow has so overwhelmed border officials in Texas that they are shipping “busloads” of immigrants to Arizona, giving them a notice to appear for eventual deportation hearings.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer sent a letter to Mr. Obama on Monday demanding to know who devised the policy, which she called “dangerous and unconscionable.” She said Homeland Security officials never gave state officials a heads-up.
“I remind you that the daytime temperatures in Arizona during this time of year are regularly more than 100 degrees. Consequently, this federal operation seems to place expediency over basic humanitarian concerns,” she wrote. “The federal government should not shirk its lawful responsibility to care for and properly process these individuals.”