(USA Today) As children from Central America keep pouring across the nation's southwest border, the Obama administration announced Friday that it will respond with a "surge" of immigration judges and U.S. attorneys to speed up the deportation of some undocumented immigrants.
It also announced a series of grants to help officials in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the countries where most of the unaccompanied children are coming from — receive the deported immigrants and keep them there.
The actions are part of a busy month for the administration, which has organized a federal task force to care for the flood of young children who have been caught crossing the border and created a federal grant to recruit more lawyers to represent those children in immigration court. On Friday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson toured the southern Texas border to inspect the government's handling of the influx, and Vice President Biden met with Central American leaders to see how they can help stop the flow.
"The question before us is how can we make the process more efficient, given the surge in the number of individuals who are being apprehended," DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Friday.
The response is due to a sharp rise in the number of children crossing the border without their parents, often with the help of smugglers known as coyotes. In 2011, fewer than 4,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were caught along the border. So far in fiscal year 2014, that number is over 34,000.
Republicans in Washington laid the blame for the surge directly on the president, saying Obama's lax immigration enforcement record and the program he created to protect some undocumented immigrants from deportation has served as a global invitation.
"The policies of your administration have directly resulted in the belief by these immigrants that once they reach U.S. soil, they will be able to stay here indefinitely," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote in a letter to Obama on Friday.
In the letter, Boehner said the safety of the children caught crossing the border is "of paramount importance" and insisted they should be housed in "clean, safe facilities." But he also called for the deployment of National Guard troops to assist Border Patrol and the other federal agencies that have been involved in the response.
"It is our duty and obligation to enforce the laws of our country while protecting the most vulnerable and ensuring they are healthy and well protected," Boehner wrote.
Mayorkas said the National Guard was not needed since the Border Patrol is already catching the immigrants, meaning the bigger focus needs to be on housing them and processing them for deportation.
"That is not something in which the National Guard is involved," he said.
While the White House did not provide details on how many judges or attorneys will be moved to the border, Mayorkas said they will focus on adults caught crossing the border, and on adults traveling with children. He said they will determine if they have a credible right to remain in the country based on asylum claims and, if not, will be removed from the country "as quickly as possible."
Targeting adults with children for deportation marks a dramatic departure from the Obama administration's immigration enforcement record, said Joanne Lin, a Washington-based attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. She said White House officials have traditionally called those groups "families" and said the change in tone and enforcement priorities seems to be in response to Republicans critical of Obama's handling of the situation.
"The administration realistically has both a humanitarian crisis at the border, but they also have a political crisis," Lin said. "If this is truly a humanitarian crisis ... how can the administration be responding now by saying, 'We need to lock up these families with kids?'"
But some feel the administration is doing the best it can in a difficult situation. Rep. Joe Garcia, R-Fla., who met this week with diplomats from the Central American countries where most of the children are coming from, said they're balancing the need to care for the children coming alone with the need to send some people back.
"There's only so many people we can absorb, particularly when you know the crisis that's existing," Garcia said. "We cannot create a system where we say 'Don't come' and at the same time we're allowing them all to stay."
The only real solution to the flood, he said, would come if Congress finally passed a revamp of the nation's immigration laws, which has stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Among the new steps announced Friday by the Obama administration:
• A $9.6 million grant to the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to build and improve their "repatriation centers," where deported immigrants are received after they've been flown back home.
• The creation of a $40 million program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, to improve citizen security in Guatemala. Administration officials say the violence in Central America is one of the main reasons so many kids are racing to the U.S.
• A new $25 million USAID program to curb violence in El Salvador.
• An $18.5 million grant to Honduras to help community policing and gang-prevention programs there.