The Obama administration said Friday it would detain families arriving at the border and announced investments in Central America to stem the flood of unaccompanied children also coming here. Meanwhile Republicans demanded the president deploy the National Guard.
The administration announced the detentions and other steps in coordination with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Guatemala to meet leaders of the countries from which tens of thousands of children have traveled, many on their own, to reunite with parents or relatives in the U.S.
The president has called the arrivals of the more than 52,000 unaccompanied children a humanitarian situation for the U.S.
About three-fourths of the children came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and the rest from Mexico, according to Border Patrol data.
The government has had limited facilities for detaining families after it quit using the T. Don Hutto detention center in Texas in 2009 amid outrage over treatment of the children and families in the prison-like setting. The center now only houses women. Some families also are housed in a Pennsylvania facility but its capacity is small.
Immigration courts already have backlogs of cases, extending the time families awaiting deportation hearings are released into the U.S. The new arrivals have exacerbated the demand on courts.
“We are surging our resources to increase our capacity to detain individuals and adults with children and to handle immigration court hearings,” deputy DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a conference call.
Mayorkas said additional immigration judges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys and asylum officers are being assigned to process adults without children who make asylum claims in order to decide whether their claims are credible or they should be promptly removed from the country.
Homeland Security plans to use alternatives to detention such as ankle monitors for adults with children while they go through deportation proceedings, he said.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson was on the border Friday in south Texas where the greatest number of children and families have crossed.
The number of children arriving in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector spiked on June 10, hitting 458 after declining for several days from 313 on June 6, according to a DHS document obtained by NBC News.
The previous high for that sector had been more than 300, but less than 350 on about May 23, a previous DHS document obtained by NBC stated.
The combined total for all other sectors on the southwest border was far lower, the highest being 103 on June 14.
By law, most children from Mexico are quickly repatriated, unlike children from non-bordering countries.
House Speaker John Boehner, whose party has blamed lax immigration and border enforcement for the increased illegal immigration, called on President Barack Obama in a letter to immediately deploy the National Guard.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, House Judiciary Committee chairman, called the administration’s plans “nothing but smoke and mirrors.” He accused Obama of weakening asylum laws that the arriving immigrants are gaming and asked what the president would do about families already released.
“He is using deceptive tactics to make it appear he is doing something when he actually isn’t,” Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement. He plans to hold a hearing next week on whether the arrivals are administration made.
The increased detentions are unlikely to sit well with advocates who have argued that many of the children and families are fleeing stepped-up violence in their countries and are refugees.
Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First’s refugee protection program, lamented the return to detention of families, which she said are more costly.
Acer urged the use of alternatives that she said are more in keeping with American ideals and “our obligation to protect refugees.”
Michelle Brané’s organization, the Women’s Refugee Commission, helped expose problems at Hutto. Babies were kept in prison jumpsuits, families had to use open-air toilets and children were disciplined with threats of being taken from their parents at the for-profit, privately-run facility, she said.
“Plain and simple, family detention is an awful and damaging process. It profoundly and irreversibly affects the physical and mental health of children and breaks down parent-child relationships,” Brané said in a statement.
The administration detailed funding targeted at the Central American countries, including $9.6 million to help with children returned to their countries and a $40 million, five-year program addressing citizen security from gangs. Other measures were spelled out in a White House fact sheet.
Sen. Bob Menendez, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said he welcomed the programs but added the U.S. is “playing catch-up in the midst of a crisis.” He said he planned hearings to consider a wholesale approach with regional governments “similar to how we approached the crisis in Colombia in the ‘90s.”
Menendez and a spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., also stated their opposition to detention of families and urged use of alternatives.