White House scrambles to keep up with child immigrant surge

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The Obama administration announced Friday it would step up efforts to repatriate a surge of illegal immigrant children as it scrambled to keep up with a burgeoning crisis.

White House officials acknowledged some of the thousands of children seeking refuge in the United States are coming, in part, because they think they would be allowed to stay in the country because of President Obama’s policies.

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They said they would work to correct those misperceptions, even as they seek to return illegal immigrants more quickly to their home countries.

Vice President Biden will raise the issue on Friday with leaders in Guatemala, one of several Central American countries where there’s been a huge influx of child emigrants.

“Part of both the vice president's effort and the administration effort overall is that people have accurate information, and that we push back on the misinformation that is being spread and which is contributing to this problem,” White House director of domestic policy Cecilia Muñoz told reporters on a conference call Friday. 

The issue has created a new political problem for the White House and further complicated efforts to move immigration reform legislation. It’s provided a new line of attack in a midterm election year for Republicans who accuse the White House of not doing enough to stop illegal immigration.

Muñoz and other officials detailed a few new steps the administration is taking.

They said they would provide $9.6 million in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to help repatriate immigrants removed from the United States.

The officials also unveiled a series of programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development to help improve security and prevent crime in the three countries, which officials previously have blamed for the spike in emigrants.

The effort includes $40 million in programs dedicated to Guatemala, $25 million to El Salvador and $18.5 million to Honduras. 

On the border, the Department of Homeland Security said it is increasing the number of immigration judges for adults coming to the country illegally with children. The hope is that this will increase immigration proceedings, allowing people to be sent back to their home countries more quickly and emptying U.S. detention centers.

“This will allow immigration and customs enforcement to return unlawful migrants to central American who are ordered removed to their home countries more quickly,” DHS deputy secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.

The department is also working to secure additional space to house those adults with children. Mayorkas said it is pursuing additional facilities but none had been decided on.

A number of illegal immigrants have been released amid the surge. Mayorkas could also not give specific numbers on the amount of illegal immigrants who had been temporarily released with instructions to report back or how many had reported back to immigration officials. 

Since October, 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border — a more than 90 percent increase since last year. This fiscal year, 39,000 adults with children have also been captured.

The White House initially blamed the problem almost exclusively on crime and violence increasing in those countries but this week has acknowledged that the administration’s decision to not deport certain children brought to the U.S. illegally in the past has also played a role. But the White House blames criminal gangs for creating the misperceptions.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest credited a "deliberate misinformation campaign" from "criminal syndicates in Central America" for the influx of minors.

The administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program does not apply to young people who illegally cross the border today, but many of the children making the risky trek think it does.

The administration says misinformation spread by criminal organizations in those regions about U.S. immigration policies has partly contributed to the influx. 

The White House on Friday released a readout of the vice president's call with Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández, where he reiterated that children crossing the border illegally will not qualify for the administration's deferred action program, which allows some minors brought to the country illegally to remain in the country without fear of deportation. 

President Obama called Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on the issue Thursday. 

Muñoz, who is in the Rio Grande Valley with the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said Biden's trip and the administration effort is aimed at working with the three countries, as well as Mexico, to deal with the problem at the source. 

“To make sure we are doing everything possible both to support countries in stemming the tide of this migration, but also to deal with the misinformation that is being planted by criminal organizations, by smuggling networks about what people can expect if they come to the United States,” she said. 

“This is misinformation that is being promulgated and put forward in a very deliberate way," she added. 

— This story was updated at 2:57 p.m.