From The Border To The Hill, Influx Of Immigrant Kids Draws Concern

Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, addresses questions about the flood of unaccompanied immigrant children and their detention in an immigrant system built for adults.

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The issue of immigration has heated up in recent weeks - not just in Eric Cantor's campaign but also along the border. There is a flood of unaccompanied immigrant children attempting to cross into the United States. The numbers have skyrocketed since last year - swamping Boarder Patrol facilities. The White House says the children are fleeing rising violence in their Central American home countries. For their part, Republicans are eager to attack the administration's immigration policies. Here is NPR's Laura Sullivan.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, told the Senate Judiciary committee that his agency has been overwhelmed by the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the Southwest border each month, more than at any time previously. In 2009, there were about 3,000 such children. This past year, there have been 48,000 of them. Some are in their teens others are 10 or even younger.

SECRETARY JEH JOHNSON: Undeniably, there is a problem of humanitarian proportions in the Rio Grande Valley sector that we must deal with.

SULLIVAN: Johnson says he's asked the Border Patrol, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, FEMA, even the Coast Guard, to focus on the problem. Most of the children are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Many of them are being kept in warehouses or former military bases until they can be given over to the Department of Health and Human Services.

JOHNSON: Violence, poverty, I believe, that is principally what is motivating the situation. I suspect also that the parents are aware that under our current law, we are required to give them to HHS, and HHS is required to do what is the best interest of the child.

SULLIVAN: Administration officials say all the children will go through deportation proceedings. But in the meantime, the hope is to reunite them with family members already here or place them in foster care. Normally, immigrants who are caught having just crossed the border are deported quickly in expedited hearings. Republicans, like Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama, seized on that to argue that the White House's disparate treatment of these children and previous efforts at hauling immigration are encouraging family to send children.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: You didn't say in your testimony today - and nothing I've seen in your reported statements - is a clear message to the world they must not come illegally to America. Will you pledge to enforce the law and interdict and send back people who come to the country unlawfully?

JOHNSON: I have pledged numerous time to enforce the law, Senator. I do it every day.

SULLIVAN: Democrats countered that House Republicans have failed to pass the Senate's bi-partisan immigration overhaul and that if it was immigration policy at fault, the children would be coming from a multitude of countries. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin from Illinois says the reports he's seen, for the kids to make it here, suggest only violence or desire to find their mothers would make them take such a harrowing journey.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: These kids were cold, hungry, helpless, hunted like animals by corrupt police bandits and gang members and most have been robbed, beaten raped - that, to me, cannot be overlooked in this conversation.

SULLIVAN: Senators also requested that Sec. Johnson open the facilities holding the children to media and nonprofit to assess the conditions. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said if he continues to refuse, he will visit the facilities himself. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, the Capitol.

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