As he parried questions from senators Wednesday about the flood of children flowing into the U.S. from Central America, the secretary of homeland security reminded Americans that the surge is more than just a political crisis — it's also a humanitarian crisis.
So many children are flowing across the Mexican border into Texas without their parents that government facilities are overwhelmed trying to process them all, Jeh Johnson said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
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Almost 50,000 unaccompanied children have illegally moved into the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley since October, according to government statistics. Most of them are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Recently, 14 children who were helped into the country by three adults, including a 5-year-old girl, crossed a dam near the Rio Grande after having traveled almost 1,000 miles from El Salvador.
Instead of dispersing to safety somewhere in the Southwest, they promptly turned themselves in to U.S. authorities, who could, for now, protect them from deadly violence and poverty at home.
"The maras gang is killing our children," Dora Hidalgo told NBC News. "That's why I escaped with my son."
The maras are thuggish gangs — some of which, like the infamous MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, began in the U.S. before spreading south to Central America — that traffic in drugs, arms and human beings.
A relative of one of the 14 children who crossed near the Rio Grande dam told NBC News his parents paid a smuggler more than $8,000 to keep their child out of the hands of the maras, which aggressively recruit new members among middle and high school students, according to the FBI.
Some families have been drawn here by rumors that the U.S. is letting women and children into the country. That's what led Roxanna Lopez, 20, of Guatemala to travel with her son to the border at McAllen, Texas — where even legal immigration often tops 300 people a day.
Lopez told NBC News she paid smugglers everything she had because she'd heard that all women and children were welcome,
U.S. officials say that isn't necessarily true. But their proclamations haven't stopped the surge.
First published June 11 2014, 3:26 PM
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent based in Miami where he reports for "Nightly News," "TODAY," MSNBC and NBCNews.com. He joined NBC News as a correspondent in 2004.
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During his 40-year journalism career, Potter has reported from all over the United States, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, including Haiti and Cuba. He has also worked in NBC's London and Hong Kong Bureaus, and has reported from China, the South Pacific, the Philippines and Israel. Much of his career was spent with investigative units at both the national and regional levels, and he has reported on topics including politics, narcotics and immigrant smuggling, environmental issues, natural disasters, international conflicts and numerous high-profile court cases.
Among the stories he has covered are the Cuban Mariel boatlift, the Grenada invasion, the arrest and trial of Panama's General Manuel Noriega, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Haitian immigration crisis, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Hezbollah-Israeli war, the 1980's Miami riots, the Theodore Bundy murder trial, the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, scores of hurricanes, the Armero volcano disaster in Colombia, the Elian Gonzalez legal battle, several Papal trips, the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, the U.S. heroin epidemic, the Southwest border security debate and the U.S.-Cuban political opening.
For 15 years prior to working at NBC News, Potter was a correspondent for ABC News, reporting for "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings," "Nightline" and "Good Morning America." He also worked for CNN, where among other duties he served as contributing correspondent for the Emmy-Award winning magazine show, "CNN and Time."
Potter is the recipient of the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, Robert F. Kennedy Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, National Headliner Awards, the 2011 national Emmy Award for "Mexico: The War Next Door," several national Emmy nominations, and six regional Emmy Awards.
He has often appeared as a guest lecturer in journalism classes at the University of Miami, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. His work is also featured in "Square Grouper," a 2011 documentary film about South Florida marijuana smugglers, and in "Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded," a 2014 documentary about drug-related violence in Miami and Colombia.
Potter was graduated from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and then worked for three local television stations in Evansville, Ind., and Miami before joining network news in 1983.