Homeland Security chief: Don't delay border funding

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Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned Congress that funding to battle illegal immigration could dry up in less than a month if lawmakers fail to approve an emergency spending bill.

At current spending rates, Johnson said, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would run out of funds by the middle of August. U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be out of cash by mid-September, he said.

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“The recent rise in illegal migration requires a sustained, aggressive campaign by our government,” he said. “Doing nothing in Congress is not an option.”

President Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding.

While both parties have said they would like to advance some sort of spending package before they break for a monthlong August recess, Republicans and Democrats in both chambers disagree on the details.

Lawmakers in both parties have indicated they will not be providing the administration’s full request upfront. Johnson declined to weigh in on what a reduced amount would do to border security, simply saying the request is aimed at processing people crossing the border illegally and giving the administration the flexibility to meet changing circumstances.

Johnson also reiterated that the administration is seeking changes to a 2008 human trafficking law to ease the processing of some child immigrants, despite some Democratic gripes.

Several high-ranking Democrats have said they would oppose changes to the law, which passed Congress unanimously. But Johnson said tweaks were needed to more quickly process the immigrant children who do not have a claim for asylum or other humanitarian aid.

“We’ve asked ... for a change in law and we’re in active discussions with Congress right now about doing that,” he said.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said earlier Tuesday that the public would not support increased funding for border operations without policy changes, especially tweaks to the 2008 law. He said Democrats were “jeopardizing” the chances of passing a funding bill and called on the administration to take on Democrats critical of changing it.

While the administration’s tone regarding the children has fluctuated over the last few weeks, Johnson struck a stern one.

“The message is that if you come here illegally, and unless you qualify for some form of humanitarian relief, we will send you back,” he said. “We’re surging resources to do that.”

Johnson added that he believed “most” of the immigrant children would not qualify for humanitarian relief and would be sent back to their home nations.

While much of the current debate has focused on the flood of kids from Central America, Johnson highlighted the progress the administration has made handling adults. He said the average time to process and return adults entering the U.S. illegally without children had fallen from 33 days to four.

“We are sending between six to 10 flights a week into each of these Central American countries to send the adults back,” he said.

He added that it appears the flow of immigrants is slowing, whether adults, children or families. In the last four to six weeks, Johnson said the total number of apprehensions by border agents has fallen across all categories.

“We’re not declaring victory. This could be seasonable. But the numbers are dropping,” he said.

Johnson also emphasized how much of the child migration appears to be the work of human smuggling operations. He said “almost all” of the children are smuggled across the border by these international groups, which charge families thousands of dollars to take their children and promise they will make it in America.

“Nobody’s freelancing. They are identified. They are recruited,” Johnson said. “The smuggling organizations mislead families into believing there’s some permisos that are going to expire at the end of the month unless you act now. Remarkably, these groups charge an exorbitant amount of money.”