By Justin Sink - 07/07/14 01:35 PM EDT
The White House said Monday that most of the thousands of unaccompanied minors flooding across the border would likely be deported.
The statement from White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who said most of the children crossing the border won’t have a legal basis to stay in the United States, comes after criticism from members of both parties, and ahead of President Obama’s trip to Texas on Wednesday.
All minors automatically get a chance to apply for asylum in the United States, but the chances of it being granted are slim. To qualify, an applicant must prove they are part of a targeted class that is suffering persecution at the hands of the government and that their home government is unable or unwilling to protect them.
Earnest’s statement was a noticeable departure from comments made Sunday by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who sidestepped repeated questions about whether the children would be allowed to remain in the U.S.
“There is a deportation proceeding that is commenced against illegal migrants, including children,” Johnson told NBC News. “We are looking at ways to create additional options for dealing with the children in particular, consistent with our laws and our values.”
Earnest said the administration was “committed” to adhering to a law requiring unaccompanied minors to be returned to their home country.
“If those children do not have a legal basis for remaining in this country — and as I mentioned, it's unlikely that those children will be likely to qualify for humanitarian relief — they'll be sent home,” he said.
Earnest said the White House still didn't have hard numbers on what proportion of immigrant children who had been caught crossing the border but then released to the care of American relatives were actually showing up for their deportation proceedings.
Critics have charged that migrant children are able to subvert the process by simply not showing up at immigration courts, which have been overwhelmed by the flood of children. A Los Angeles Times story on Monday based on information obtained through an Freedom of Information Act request showed that while the number of migrant children had spiked in recent years, the numbers actually being deported had decreased.
Earnest said those facts illustrated "the court system is not operating as efficiently as we would like it to" and the need for supplemental help from Congress "to more efficiently deal with those who've been recently apprehended, and making sure that we are enforcing the law."
Earnest said the “pretty detailed compilation” would include specific requests from the administration on how to address the border issue, as well as other administration priorities, like a terrorism partnership fund and money to combat wildfires.
Obama is scheduled to hold fundraisers in Dallas and Austin on Wednesday. He is not scheduled to do any events on immigration but is set to speak on the economy.
Earnest said the White House was “not worried” about the optics of raising cash without taking a trip to survey the crisis firsthand.
“That's simply because the president is very aware of the situation that exists on the southwest border,” Earnest said. “Senior administration officials from the secretary of homeland security, the secretary of HHS, top CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officials, even some senior White House officials have traveled in the last several weeks to the southwest border. What they have seen is troubling.”
Earnest added that critics “should also be strongly supportive of efforts to make a historic investment in border security” contained in the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that has languished in the House.
Republicans seized on the “not worried” remark to bash the president's priorities.
“The next time the President wants to lecture Republicans on immigration, he should instead reflect on his habit of politicizing the humanitarian and border crisis occurring on the U.S.-Mexico border while prioritizing money and politics when he has a chance to do his job," said RNC spokeswoman Izzy Santa. "But honestly, the President’s action is fitting; after all he did promise immigration reform within his first year in office and didn’t do anything.”
On Sunday, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) joined congressional Republicans in slamming the administration's handling of the crisis.
“With all due respect to the administration, they're one step behind. They should have seen this coming a long time ago,” Cuellar told CNN.
This story was updated at 2:02 p.m.