The White House on Monday rejected charges that it has caused a flood of illegal child immigrants surging across the southern border.
Even as the influx continued, the administration defended President Obama’s 2012 decision to defer deportation of “dreamers,” people who entered the United States illegally as children, and instead blamed violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for the spike.
Authorities arrested more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors between October 2013 and May — a 92 percent increase from the same period a year ago, according to a Border Patrol memo.
The surge has overwhelmed border police and complicated debate over sending the children back to their families. Pictures of overcrowded detention centers and of Homeland Security officials bringing in busloads more illegal immigrant children suggest a growing humanitarian crisis and a loss of federal control.
It has sharpened the news focus on whether Obama should order even more relaxation of deportation proceedings, as demanded by some immigration pressure groups.
Republicans blame Obama’s deferred deportation program, which allows children who entered the U.S. illegally before 2007 to stay here under certain circumstances. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the crisis is a “direct consequence” of the president’s decisions.
“The parents think, ‘If I send my child [to the U.S.], my child will have amnesty.’ That’s what the president of the U.S. has said. It is the exact opposite of a humane approach to immigration or to securing our borders,” Cruz told Breitbart News.
A senior administration official disputed that claim, saying it was “abundantly clear” that most of the new immigrants crossing into Texas are fleeing Central American violence.
Three out of every four children intercepted since October are from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, said the Border Patrol memo, obtained by The Associated Press.
“Violence is a major reason they’re coming forward in this way,” the senior administration official said.
A second official said there has not been a corresponding surge in immigrants from Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico, where the violence is less of a concern.
“Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world,” the official said. “Guatemala and El Salvador are fourth and fifth.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest scoffed at Cruz, saying he would not “put a lot of stock in the ability of Republicans members of Congress to divine the thoughts and insights of children in Central American countries.”
Republicans attacking the administration are simply looking for another reason to oppose the bipartisan immigration reform bill approved by the Senate last year, he said.
He added: “For whatever reasons, there are some who oppose this compromise and will cite a wide range of things to suggest why they think that immigration [reform] shouldn’t get done. I mean, I guess, apparently, that extends to trying to divine the motivations and thoughts of minors who don’t live in this country.”
The White House is holding out hope for an immigration deal that would allow legislation to pass in the House despite widespread opposition among Republicans there.
A former senior administration official said that the wave of young migrants wouldn’t “significantly” change the White House strategy.
But the White House needs to improve its messaging, some allies say. The former administration official said it has been “weak at best.”
“The biggest problem is that they haven’t prioritized this issue,” the former official said. “They have complained that other issues have gotten in the way, like Ukraine, but they haven’t been able to figure out how to make immigration a priority since the start of 2013, and it has fizzled.”
Instead of hosting events on concussions and child nutrition, the official said the administration should be focused on immigration.
On Monday, Obama met a group of nurses to press the issue. But news media were kept out, and the event was overshadowed by new executive action on student loans and an impromptu presidential trip to a Starbucks coffee shop near the White House.
Obama has given Republicans too much room on the issue, another former senior official complained, adding, “He gave them more space than they needed, and that has become problematic. He really needs to show them [with executive actions] that if they don’t act, then he will.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has argued the reverse, saying House Republicans need to be able to trust Obama on the issue and that trust would be lost with unilateral action by the White House.