WASHINGTON -- Leaders of several federal departments detailed their agencies' responses Thursday to the surge of unaccompanied immigrant children who have been caught crossing the Southwest border -- and stressed that all are subject to being sent home.
"I also wish to make clear that those apprehended at our border are priorities for removal. They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws regardless of age," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said repeatedly during Thursday's news conference in Washington.
Johnson was joined by officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, Customs and Border Protection, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency who said they are collaborating to deliver medical care, food, shelter and legal support, among other services, to the thousands of youths stopped.
The agencies are struggling to cope with a surge of unaccompanied children, which President Barack Obama called an "urgent humanitarian situation," that has flooded facilities in Texas and led to hundreds of immigrants being shipped to holding facilities in Arizona and elsewhere.
Mark Greenberg, acting HHS assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, said the agency used to get 7,000 to 8,000 children in a typical year. But the number jumped to more than 13,000 children in 2012 and has continued to rise.
The number had reached 47,017 by May 31 of this year, almost doubling the 24,493 who had been stopped by May 31, 2013. Current estimates are that the number for this year will top 60,000.
Greenberg said HHS has been steadily building its capacity for unaccompanied children as needed, but "the numbers have grown at a pace beyond what we predicted and what DHS predicted."
When children are apprehended, Customs and Border Protection has 72 hours to conduct initial interviews and start removal proceedings before they transfer the children to Health and Human Services.
Once children arrive at HHS facilities they get medical screenings, immunizations and mental health exams, Greenberg said. They are also provided with food, information on their legal rights, education and opportunities for physical activity and placement services.
"The safety of the children and the safety of the American public are our foremost concerns," Greenberg said.
To deal with the surge, military bases have been prepared to supplement HHS facilities, aircraft have been leased to transport children and the Justice Department has loaned resources and immigration judges for faster removal proceedings.
The Department of Homeland Security also tapped FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to coordinate the federal efforts.
Johnson said the goal is to process the children "quickly and safely," ultimately landing them in "a safe and secure environment that is in the best interests of the child, pursuant to the requirements of the law."
Johnson said his department has reinitiated a public affairs campaign in Spanish and in English "to talk about the dangers of sending kids over the border and the danger of putting kids into the hands of criminal smuggling organizations."
But Johnson stressed that these children are not eligible for deferred deportation, which is available to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and have pursued education or military service.
He also said the earned path to citizenship envisioned in some immigration reform measures being considered by Congress would not apply to this group of youths.
In a letter Wednesday to the president, Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain had asked for assurances that the newest border crossers would not be eligible for deferred action. They also insisted that any immigration reform passed by Congress would "include a requirement to have been in the country for an extended duration."
"While resisting the temptation to take further unilateral action on immigration enforcement, the present situation begs your best efforts to make clear that there are consequences for illegally entering the U.S.," the letter said.
The Arizona Republicans also asked that the president work with foreign leaders to dissuade their citizens from crossing the border illegally.
On Thursday, Gov. Jan Brewer sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to stop what she called the "intentional and unconscionable" processing of minors who are caught at the border. Brewer charged that the Obama administration "has encouraged this massive influx" of immigrants.
In addition to the policies outlined Thursday, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said there is also a human element to the care of these unaccompanied children.
He said he has seen Border Patrol agents "doing everything from mixing formula to bringing in their own children's clothing to take care of these kids."
"It takes a toll on those agents, a human toll," Kerlikowske said. "But they are absolutely committed to making sure that these children are treated not only in the most respectful and humane way, but frankly, the most loving way."
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