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White House Boosts Response to Surge in Child Migrants

President Barack Obama ordered the creation of a high-level working group to respond to the recent surge in unaccompanied immigrant children, following congressional criticism that he has neglected to acknowledge the extra money and effort needed to handle the crisis.

Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of domestic policy, announced on a conference call with reporters on Monday that Obama has called on Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to stand up a coordination group to handle the “urgent, humanitarian situation, which the federal government is moving very swiftly to address.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will take the lead in coordinating transportation, housing, basic care and medical treatment for the thousands of children crossing the border each week without guardians.

At the same time, the Office of Management and Budget has told Congress it needs $2.28 billion for fiscal 2015 to address the crisis, more than doubling its earlier budget request of $868 million. The request, which came in a letter to appropriators on Friday, came after congressional complaints that the administration was not adequately addressing the burgeoning crisis. The funding would go mostly to the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said Monday that the administration’s goal is to ensure that children are not held in Customs and Border Protection detention centers for more than 72 hours before being moved to shelter facilities run by Health and Human Services.

“We want to make sure that we are providing both the immediate needs but also building capacity,” Fugate said.

The number of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the United States has been steadily increasing for the past three years but has substantially spiked in recent weeks.

HHS has estimated that about 6,500 unaccompanied minors entered the United States in fiscal 2011. By fiscal 2014, that estimate had jumped ninefold, to roughly 60,000. Outside experts project the number could surge to 130,000 over the coming fiscal year.

Muñoz said Monday that the federal government has seen a 90 percent increase so far this fiscal year in unaccompanied minors crossing the border, mostly from Central American, driven north by intensifying violence in their home countries. She said that over the last year there has been an increase in girls crossing the border alone, as well as an increase in children who are younger than 13.

“The increase is much larger than anticipated,” Muñoz said.

DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said his department will be posting data as early as Monday afternoon to show “the more granular breakdown” of the jump in unaccompanied minors.

Last week, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., accused the Obama administration of showing “no leadership” in addressing the issue in its fiscal 2015 budget request.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a growing problem of immense enormity and terrible hurt,” Rogers said during a subcommittee markup of a draft bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security in fiscal 2015.

Within the spending legislation the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security reported out last week, lawmakers included nearly $77 million above the administration’s request for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transfer unaccompanied minors to HHS facilities for shelter.

Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget request called for the same level of funding as fiscal 2014 — $868 million — for the HHS program that provides care for unaccompanied minors and seeks permanent homes for them. In calling Friday for appropriators to hike that figure to $2.28 billion, OMB Deputy Director Brian C. Deese wrote that “providing appropriate flexibility to HHS and relevant components at DHS in the FY 2015 appropriations bills would help address unforeseen needs.”

Deese also asked in his letter for appropriators to kick in an extra $166 million in funding for DHS, to pay costs such as CBP overtime pay and ICE transportation of the unaccompanied minors.

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