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White House Ducks Questions on Deporting Child Migrants

The Obama administration stressed Monday that child migrants entering the country illegally must go through deportation proceedings, but continued to avoid answering questions about how many of them actually show up and end up getting deported.

On a background call with reporters, senior administration officials reiterated that the unaccompanied minors are ineligible for “deferred action” waivers from deportation.

But officials moved on without offering statistics or estimates about how many kids are ultimately being sent back to their home countries.

CQ Weekly reported last month on how the unprecedented surge of children trekking more than 1,000 miles from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border to escape intensifying violence in their home countries has overwhelmed federal resources in a matter of weeks.

With Republican lawmakers blaming Obama administration immigration policies for driving the recent flood of minors illegally crossing into Texas, the White House has found itself on the defensive. A top official said Monday that the White House wants to make it “abundantly clear” that violence in Central America is propelling the increase.

The official’s explanation followed comments earlier Monday by Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, who told reporters that he “wouldn’t put a lot of stock in the ability of Republican members of Congress to divine the thoughts and insights of children in Central American countries.”

Criticism from Republicans lawmakers heated up last week, after Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that his department would immediately begin renewing deportation waivers for certain immigrants who entered the country as children before June 15, 2007.

Administration officials have reiterated that those policies and the ones proposed under the Senate-passed immigration bill (S 744) would not apply to recent entrants.

“If there are children that are coming to this country now thinking that they are eligible for the DREAM Act, they’re not,” Earnest said.

But foreign minors who have been abused, abandoned or neglected are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status and can get green cards to live and work in the United States permanently if they are unable to be reunited with a parent.

The issue has taken on a partisan tone.

“The recent surge of children and teenagers from Central America showing up at our Southern border is an administration-made disaster,” House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a written statement last week. “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America.”

Casting the onus back on Congress to improve immigration policies in a way that could quell the influx of immigrant children, administration officials have urged lawmakers to move forward this summer with a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

“If anything, it certainly highlights once again the need to try to address the problem of immigration reform — that this is a broken system that we’re operating under,” Earnest said.

Using Military Bases as Shelters

In the meantime, the White House continues to order additional resources to handle the influx of children, opening another federal shelter at Fort Sill Military Base in Oklahoma to house at least 600 minors and up to 1,200, according to senior administration officials. Lackland Air Force Base in Texas is already being used to shelter up to 1,000 unaccompanied kids, and up to 575 are being shuttled to California to stay on a naval base in Ventura County.

A top administration official said Monday that some children are still being held in Customs and Border Protection detention facilities for longer than the 72-hour legal limit before being transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services for care, despite the extra shelters.

The surge is happening almost exclusively in the Rio Grande Valley, taxing federal resources there, while other portions of the border “remain unchanged,” the official said.

Because the kids are not always being transferred from Border Patrol custody within three days, the Department of Homeland Security has been trying to ensure they have hot meals and access to shower facilities while they are held in detention facilities, the official said.

The Office of Management and Budget asked Congress this month to kick in an extra $166 million in fiscal 2015 funding for DHS to pay costs such as CBP overtime pay and transportation of the unaccompanied minors, as well as a total of $2.28 billion for the HHS program that provides care for the kids and seeks permanent housing for them.

After criticizing the White House for not calling in its fiscal 2015 budget request for extra money to deal with the influx, House appropriators have included in their fiscal 2015 spending legislation nearly $77 million above the president’s request to help DHS deal with the crisis.

The full House Appropriations Committee is set to vote Wednesday on those spending levels during a markup of its Homeland Security spending bill.