WASHINGTON - The White House said Monday that most unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are unlikely to qualify for humanitarian relief that would prevent them from being sent back to their home countries.
The warning came as the White House finalized a spending request to Congress detailing the additional resources President Barack Obama wants to hire more immigration judges and open additional detention facilities to deal with the border crisis. White House officials said they planned to send the more than $2 billion request to lawmakers on Tuesday.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that while the administration will allow the immigration review process to take place, officials don't expect many of the children arriving at the border to be able to stay in the U.S.
"It's unlikely that most of these kids will qualify for humanitarian relief," Earnest said. "It means they will not have a legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned."
Some 9,700 unaccompanied children from Central America were taken into custody in the U.S. in May alone. Most are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where spikes in violence and poverty are prompting parents to send their children on difficult and dangerous journeys north.
Their numbers have overwhelmed U.S. agencies.
It's unclear how quickly the immigration review process will unfold. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged Sunday that such proceedings might be long delayed, and he said that coping with floods of unaccompanied minors crossing the border is a legal and humanitarian dilemma for the United States.
"Our border is not open to illegal migration, and we are taking a number of steps to address it, including turning people around faster," Johnson told NBC's "Meet the Press." At the same time, he said, the administration is "looking at ways to create additional options for dealing with the children in particular, consistent with our laws and our values."
Repeatedly pressed to say whether thousands of Central American children will be deported promptly, Johnson said, "We need to find more efficient, effective ways to turn this tide around generally, and we've already begun to do that."
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A George W. Bush-era law to address human trafficking prevents the government from returning these children to their home countries without taking them into custody and eventually through a deportation hearing. Minors from Mexico and Canada, by contrast, can be sent back across the border more easily. The administration says it wants more flexibility under the law.
Johnson said the administration has dramatically sped up the processing of adults who enter the country illegally, and it is opening more detention facilities.
Unaccompanied Central American children generally are being released to relatives already in the United States. Mothers with their children often are released with a notice to appear later in immigration court.
Meanwhile, word of seemingly successful border crossings reaches their home countries, encouraging others to try.
Johnson said the U.S. government is trying to send the message that all people who enter the country illegally will face deportation proceedings eventually. In Central America, he said, "the criminal smuggling organizations are putting out a lot of disinformation about supposed free passes into this country" that will expire soon. "We're cracking down on the smuggling organizations by surging law enforcement resources," Johnson said.
Johnson and others are warning of the dangers that immigrants, and especially children, face when the try to reach the United States on their own. Johnson is scheduled to meet with Guatemalan officials later this week.