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.
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.