WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that Arizona officials should have been notified before hundreds of illegal immigrant children and families were shipped to Nogales for processing — instead of learning about it in news reports.
“It shouldn’t have happened that way. The congressional delegation, local officials should have gotten notice,” Johnson said in response to a question from U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, about a lack of notification.
“And I’ve instructed my staff that when we have to go to these places, we give the congressional delegation and local officials advance information about that,” he said.
The comments came during a packed House Homeland Security Committee hearing about the flood of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central American countries who are crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley. The flow of illegal immigrants has outstripped the capacity of the Border Patrol in Texas, leading to some of those children being sent to Nogales and elsewhere.
Johnson, flanked by officials from Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, detailed federal efforts to deal with the influx, but spent much of the 2½-hour hearing fending off Republican charges that the surge can be laid to lax immigration enforcement.
Critics said DACA — the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which delays deportation of longtime illegal immigrants brought here as children — has encouraged the belief that children who cross the border illegally now will be allowed to stay.
“I do believe that DACA and our immigration laws are the cause of this,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa. “But I don’t blame just the president for not enforcing our immigration laws. It’s even members of Congress.
“Any member of Congress that starts talking about a pathway to amnesty, and that’s what it is, lays out the welcome mat for people around the world that want to come into the United States illegally,” Barletta said.
But Johnson repeated the administration’s insistence that DACA applies only to those brought here, who have lived here for at least seven years — not those coming over now. “When you’re apprehended at the border, regardless of age, you’re a priority for removal,” Johnson said.
He said the administration is working with officials in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to make it clear that recent border crossers are priorities for deportation. That point was driven home over the weekend by Vice President Joe Biden in a trip to Guatemala.
Johnson said that trip, and an “open letter” to those parents who would send their children north, aim to counter “disinformation” spread by smugglers that children will be allowed to stay in the U.S.
“There is this disinformation out there that there is a permisos,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing, permisos, free pass, like you get a piece of paper that says: ‘Welcome to the United States. You’re free.’ That’s not the case.”
Johnson said that in addition to the current federal response, he is considering every “conceivable, lawful option” to address the problem.
Barber said he is concerned not only for the children who are coming across, but also about the implications for border security from the strain on law-enforcement resources.
“The people I represent, particularly those who live and work along the border, are really concerned about their safety,” Barber said. “The concern they’ve expressed to me is that as Border Patrol agents have been pulled in to the Nogales station in particular to care for these children, we have compromised their ability to secure the border and keep people safe.”
Johnson, who is to visit Nogales today, said he plans to find out whether personnel in Arizona are being diverted from duties on the border to address the situation in Nogales.
“Are we having to divert Border Patrol personnel from their Border Patrol duties? It’s very important to me that we minimize the circumstances of that,” Johnson said.