WASHINGTON, D.C. — The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the southwest border has increased more than 90 percent over the last year, and many of the unaccompanied children will be reunited with family members living in the United States, according to administration officials.
Monday, President Obama announced that he has directed Department of Homeland Security Sec. Jeh Johnson to establish a new, interagency “Unified Coordination Group,” set to be led by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate, in response to the flood of illegal immigrant children.
“As the Federal Coordinating Official, the Administrator (or his designee) shall lead and coordinate Federal response efforts to ensure that Federal agency authorities and the resources granted to the departments and agencies under Federal law (including personnel, equipment, supplies, facilities, and managerial, technical, and advisory services) are unified in providing humanitarian relief to the affected children, including housing, care, medical treatment, and transportation,” Obama announced in his Monday memorandum.
According to officials the illegal immigrant children crossing the border alone are much younger and more female than in years past, which has added to the administration’s sense of urgency.
Once detained, unaccompanied minors who are apprehended at the border are then placed into Health and Human Services custody. Officials said Monday that HHS then seeks to reunify these children with their family members.
“It’s impossible to say exactly what will happen to the kids that are in HHS care right now, but in general significant numbers of them do have family members in the United States,” Cecilia Muñoz, White House domestic policy advisor, said on a Monday conference call with reporters.
Mark Greenberg, Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at HHS said that the agency is required under the law to find the “least restrictive setting” for the child.
“There is an effort to identify if they have a parent or relative or other sponsor in the United States. Our responsibly under the law is to identify the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” Greenberg said, noting that children typically stay in HHS custody for between 30 to 45 days before they are given to a parent or other sponsor.
Muñoz added that the law does not allow for expedited removal of children from noncontiguous countries.
“If they are reunited with parents within the United States, these children are still in removal proceedings, and so the immigration process does not stop when they are reunited with parents or other appropriate family members. They end up in removal proceedings, and those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
On Monday’s conference call Obama Administration officials noted that the Department of Defense has also gotten involved in helping to house the unaccompanied children.
Last month it opened Lackland Air Force Base to hold 1,200 unaccompanied youths, where Breitbart Texas reports many are said to have illnesses. On Monday officials announced that children may begin arriving at another naval base in Ventura County as early as Friday.
Muñoz pushed back against the idea that the influx could be due to discussions of immigration reform.
“We have heard… of rumors and reports that, or suggestions that, the increase may be in response to the perception that children would be allowed to stay or that immigration reform would in some way benefit these children. It is important to note several things. One is that the increase started before the immigration debate started. Its increase, year by year, dates back as far as 2009 – although we mentioned this year’s increase is substantial compared to previous years,” she said.
“Neither the bill which passed the Senate last year, nor the deferred action program for childhood arrivals would benefit these kids,” she continued. “They both have cutoff dates. You had to have been in the country by a particular date in order to qualify for either of those things.”
The White House advisor went on to assert that agencies say the children apprehended at the border are not aware of possible immigration benefits.
“At least from our own anecdotal experience, from our federal agencies in talking with these children as they arrive, they appear to be unaware of the potential for any benefits. It seems to be quite clear that what’s driving this is what is happening in their home countries,” she said, adding the reunification with parents in the United States is another reason.
Shortly after the coordination group’s announcement House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte slammed the Obama Administration for causing the influx, saying the crisis is an “Administration-made disaster.”
“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,” Goodlatte said. “Illegal border crossing is extremely dangerous, and many of these children encounter drug and human traffickers along the way. Enforcement at the border and in the interior of the U.S. is crucial to end these kinds of situations, not another bureaucratic task force.”
The Virginia Republican went on to say his committee will be holding a hearing on the matter in the coming weeks.