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Transcript of DHS Secretary Johnson’s Press Conference at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Headquarters

Release Date: 
July 1, 2014

June 12, 2014

SECRETARY: I’m joined by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Executive Associate Director Tom Holman, and Health and Human Services Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg. We’re here to update you on the steps we are taking to address the surge in unaccompanied children along our nation’s Southwest border, focused in the Rio Grande Valley sector. Last year CBP encountered over 24,000 unaccompanied children crossing the border. By May of this year, the number has already doubled to just over 47,000. This correlates with an overall rise in illegal migration into the Rio Grande Valley sector, principally by what we refer to as third country nationals, those from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras that represent approximately three quarters of this population.

I saw this situation for myself vividly on May 11th – which happens to have been Mother’s Day – when I visited McAllen Station Processing Center. I approached a 10-year-old girl and asked her, “Where’s your mother?” She responded, “I don’t have a mother. I’m looking for my father in the United States.” I returned to Washington the next day determined to do something about this situation. As I testified to Congress yesterday, this is a problem of humanitarian proportions in the Rio Grande Valley sector.

Now, here is what we are doing about it. Number one: on May 12th, Monday, I declared a Level IV condition of readiness within the Department of Homeland Security, which is a determination that the capacity of CBP and ICE to deal with the situation is full, and we need to draw upon the resources of the entire Department of Homeland Security. I appointed the Deputy Chief of the Border Patrol to be the coordinator of that effort for a DHS-wide response to the situation.

Number two: on June 1st, the President, pursuant to the Homeland Security Act, directed me to establish a unified coordination group to bring to bear the assets of the entire Federal Government to deal with this situation. This includes DHS and all of its components, HHS, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, GSA, and the Department of State. I have, in turn, appointed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate who is here to serve as the Federal Coordinating Official for that US Government-wide effort. In this effort, our goal is to quickly and safely transport the unaccompanied children out of CBP custody into the hands of HHS, supplementing the process all along the way in a safe and humane manner into, ultimately, a safe and secure environment that is in the best interests of the child, pursuant to the requirements of the law. FEMA has dedicated 70 people fulltime to coordinating this effort. On top of that, folks from across agencies of our government are working around the clock to address the effort.

Number three: we’re looking for more space for processing and temporary shelter. The Department of Defense has loaned us Lackland Air Base in Texas for HHS to house kids before HHS can appropriately determine a legal guardian; releasing Fort Sill in Oklahoma for the same purpose. HHS is also using a DoD facility in Ventura, California, to deal with the processing of the influx of people into south Texas. We’re also sending unaccompanied children to Arizona for processing, and then to HHS. The GSA is also assisting in the efforts to identify additional space.

Number four: we brought on more transportation assets. The Coast Guard, at my direction, is loaning air assets to assisting in transporting the children from DHS to other shelters. ICE is also leasing two additional charter aircraft.

Number five: we’re doing a preliminary screening for health reasons for all of those who come into our facilities in south Texas. The Office of Health Affairs and the Coast Guard are lending resources to this effort.  Every child is provided a health screening on-site.

Number six: we called upon non-governmental organizations, volunteer organizations and charity organizations to assist in this effort. At our request, the American Red Cross is providing humanitarian needs for the situation, including blankets and hygiene kits. Faith-based groups like the Texas Baptist Men have provided shower trailers in south Texas.

Number seven: the Department of Justice is loaning resources and immigration judges for faster removal proceedings.

In addition to all this, we know that we must do something to stem this tide, so, number eight: I’ve been in contact with the Ambassadors and other officials of all four countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico – affected by this to talk about our shared border security interest and faster repatriation. I plan to go to Guatemala myself in July to continue my personal engagement with this situation.

Number nine: we have reinitiated our public affairs campaign in Spanish and in English, radio, print, and TV, to talk about the dangers of sending kids over the border, and the dangers of putting kids into the hands of criminal smuggling organizations. In this regard, I wish to make something very clear: DACA, the program that has been in existence now for two years which is in the process of being renewed, is for those who came into this country in 2007, seven years ago. Those who cross into this country, even children; today, yesterday or tomorrow; are not eligible for DACA treatment. Likewise, the comprehensive immigration reform being considered by Congress right now, the earned path to citizenship component of that is for those who have been in this country since December 31st, 2011, about 18 months ago. Those who cross our borders today illegally, including children, are not eligible for an earned path to citizenship pursuant to this legislation. I also wish to make clear that those apprehended at our border are priorities for removal. They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws, regardless of age.

Number ten: we’ve surged criminal investigator resources in ICE, Homeland Security investigations, and CBP for the prosecution of those who smuggle children, families, and others. In May, HSI concluded a month-long targeted enforcement operation that focused on human smuggling along the Southwest border, with operations in El Paso, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Diego that resulted in 163 arrests of smugglers. I’ve directed a 90-day surge of 60 additional HSI personnel to offices in San Antonio and Houston to work with the Department of Justice to ramp up our prosecutions of smuggling organizations.

Number eleven: in May I directed a unified campaign plan to deal with the Southwest border, calling upon all assets of the department in a coordinated way to address security on the Southwest border, and to fill the gaps if necessary, to call upon other departments of our government to assist. I’ve asked that we consider all lawful options to deal with these situations. If there are options, we want to hear about them.

Finally, the administration has asked for Congress’s help. We continue to work closely with Congress to ensure we have the resources we need to address the humanitarian situation. We appreciate the support we’ve received from Congress in addressing the current situation, and as we work through the budget for the coming fiscal year. In this, we can and we must do all we can to address the situation.

Thank you, and I’d like to turn it over now to Administrator Fugate.

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, good afternoon. When the President and the Secretary made a decision that what we had been doing wasn’t bringing all the resources of the Federal Government together, the President asked the Secretary to utilize the National Response Framework. Most commonly you think of this as we respond to disasters with it, but it’s also a coordinating mechanism where we can bring all of our Federal resources together to focus on challenges that we’re facing. In this case, the National Response Framework and the agencies that make up that are supporting the two lead agencies: Custom and Border Protection at the point of interdiction and their care of these children until which point they’re turned over to Health and Human Services, and supporting Health and Human Services in their role in refugee resettlement. This is an opportunity that we saw that the Secretary and the President directed to use tools that oftentimes you think about in disasters, but are the same frameworks we use to bring all the Federal resources to bear on this challenge.

And again, as we continue to work through this, I really see that our role is facilitation. We’re using a lot of the capabilities we’ve had, but more directed and focused, specifically to the unaccompanied children and the focus on their health and welfare through this process. Again, as the Secretary pointed out, a lot of the initial response has been through the faith-based community, and they are active not only at the point where we are bringing the basic care to these children, but are also a key component in the resettlement opportunities of fostering children as they go through the program. So this process that we’ve been assigned to is to support the two lead agencies from the point of interdiction to the point of them being placed – either reunited with family members or placed in long-term foster care. And again, it’s the facilitation of all of the Federal resources that are available to support this mission.

But I’d like to turn it now over to your two lead agencies that are really dealing with on-the-ground managing this. And I’d like to start out with the Commissioner of Custom and Border Protection in person. Sir?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Thank you very much. And Mr. Secretary, thank you. I know there have been a number of issues that have been entered into by all of you regarding complaints that have recently been made. Let me assure you, I signed an order today that those complaints would be investigated. Let me also – and I think I’ve demonstrated my commitment to not only those types of investigations and the transparency – but let me make a really significant point. In my multiple trips with the Border Patrol agents, I’ve been watching them do absolutely heroic efforts; not only rescuing children, but taking care of them way beyond some of the skill sets. They are doing everything from mixing formula to bringing in their own children’s clothing, to taking care of these kids in a multitude of ways. As Administrator Fugate knows, it takes a toll on those agents, a human toll, but they are absolutely committed to making sure these children are treated not only in the most respectful and humane way, but frankly, the most loving way.

MARK GREENBERG: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Mark Greenberg. I’m Acting Assistant Secretary at the Administration for Children and Families in HHS. The unaccompanied children that are arriving from Central America are vulnerable, and they have significant needs. They’re young, they’re separated from their families, and they’ve just survived a hazardous journey. HHS has a responsibility to temporarily take care of these children; to protect them, and to work to place each child in the least restrictive setting that’s in the best interest of the child. We fund a network of state-licensed facilities that are operated by nonprofit organizations to care for unaccompanied children, mostly in group home settings.

When the children arrive in these facilities they receive medical screenings, all needed immunizations to protect against communicable diseases. They are screened for tuberculosis; they receive a mental health exam as they’ve often experienced trauma, either in their home country, or on the journey, or both. In the facilities, along with receiving the mental and medical health services, they also receive nutrition, information on their legal rights, classroom education, opportunities for physical activity, and placement services to facilitate safe release to family members or other sponsors who can care for them. Their average stay with us is less than 35 days.

The safety of these children and the safety of the American public are our foremost concerns. Until the last several years, we used to receive referrals from CBP of about 7,000 to 8,000 unaccompanied children each year. The number has been steadily increasing. In 2012, we served more than 13,000 children; in 2013 over 24,000; and the projection for this year was 60,000 before these most recent increases.

As the Secretary talked about, we are currently using a set of temporary facilities to receive the increased numbers of children with the help of the Department of Defense. The facilities that are operating at the Joint Base San Antonio and Lackland, the Naval Base Ventura County in California, and we’ll shortly be opening the additional facility in Fort Sill in Oklahoma. We greatly appreciate the collaboration and the cooperation of our Federal partners, the overall coordination by FEMA as we work together to address the urgent humanitarian needs of these children. Thank you.

SECRETARY: Okay we will take a few questions. Yes, Ma’am.

Reporter: Hi, If you are providing these children with so many services, everything from transportation to health care, education, housing and even legal representation as the DOJ has announced, isn’t that incentivizing people to come to this country…more people to come rather than making it not an incentive?

SECRETARY: I would say no. First and foremost I want to reiterate the point that I made a moment ago which is that if you cross the border illegally today you are not eligible for DACA treatment nor are you eligible for the earned path to citizenship that is being contemplated by the legislation that’s now before Congress, which I sincerely hope and believe the Congress will pass. It provides for resources, it provides for the earned path to citizenship and a variety of other things to improve our broken immigration system. Frankly, it is also hazardous to send a child into south Texas to a processing center. A processing center, and a number of us here have seen them ourselves, are no place for children. And to put a child into the hands of a criminal smuggling organization is not safe either. So yes, we provide a number of things for children when we find them because the law requires it and because our values require it, but it is not safe. It is not a desirable situation and I would encourage no parent to send their child or send for their child through this process.

SECRETARY: Yes, sir.

Reporter: It sounds like you were really affected by what you saw in McAllen and I’m wondering how do you respond to that little girl who says she doesn’t have a mother to return to. How is that a humane treatment to return her back there if she’s got her father here? And if I have a question for the HHS gentleman. It sounds to me like you guys have seen this coming, but yet it seems like the agency was caught a little flat-footed in how to respond to this. Can you maybe explain what you’ve been doing the last few years to prepare for this?

SECRETARY: Well first of all, we’ve known of a rising tide for some time now. I first heard about this during my Senate confirmation process last fall. And the reason I went there, I’d been to south Texas before in this job, not focused on this issue, but the reason I chose to go there in May is because I was hearing that the numbers were rising. Very definitely when I saw it for myself, and I had a chance to talk with these kids, be with these kids, it was a very vivid demonstration to me of the problem that we face. And so it zoomed to the top of my list in terms of things that are requiring my personal time and attention along with my other obligations to homeland security. So, I guess what I would say is family unification for a child is something that is critical. So I want to see every child with a parent who is able to take care of them. And the law requires that we do what is in the best interest of the child. And that’s what we’re doing and that’s what HHS’ mandate is and that’s what they’re doing. They’re doing an incredible job in the circumstances of handling this increase in this population. And I’ll turn it over to you sir.

MARK GREENBERG:  Thank you. So as I indicated in my remarks before. The number of children has been going up dramatically over these last several years. And we have been steadily building capacity to address the increased numbers. As noted from what had been the range of 7,000 to 8,000 to 24,000 last year and anticipating 60,000 this year, we were steadily building the capacity that is needed to have the permanent settings for the children. What has happened in this most recent period is that the numbers, particularly since the beginning of May, have grown at a pace beyond what we had predicted and beyond what the Department of Homeland Security had predicted. And that’s what has caused this most recent set of challenges.

Reporter: Yes, Mr. Secretary. Thank you. Two questions. One is we are assuming that most of these children are part of families that are also undocumented or they would have been claimed. Is there a process where a family claims the child that they are reported to ICE or does this automatically put them in the road to deportation as well? And how does that process work? And also for you, how do you think this shapes or informs the review that you are presently undergoing on deportation practices and the prospects of immigration reform in the House, the comprehensive reform in the House?

SECRETARY: First of all, we do track the whereabouts of those who are given Notices to Appear. There are ways to do that in the process. So that is definitely the case. I would say that with respect to the parents, there are no doubt a variety of circumstances, some could be lawful residents, some could be U.S. citizens. I would not assume that every parent with whom the child is reunited is undocumented. So there are a variety of circumstances, I would assume. Second, my review is still ongoing. I do believe that there are improvements we can make on how we enforce our immigration laws and how we execute on our removal priorities to better ensure that we are removing those who represent the biggest threat to public safety, border security and national security. I think the thing that this brings home is the need for comprehensive immigration reform which includes added resources for border security as well as stability in the law right now. If Congress acts, I believe we know our immigration law landscape for years, if not decades, and so there is a lot of anticipation about what comprehensive immigration reform would do. But it needs to be clear that if Congress acts on the pending litigation the earned path to citizenship is for those who have been in the country now for a year and half, not those who are crossing today. But I believe that one of the reasons, one of the many reasons, Congress needs to act on that is so that we have stability in the law and so there’s a new immigration landscape out there.

Reporter: Forgive me, you are being very ambiguous. You say one moment that we are acting in the best interest of the child which is obviously to live in the United States and the second is you are going to follow the law and they are not priorities that you will apply deportation. Does this mean that if kids come across the border they will be automatically sent home or that they will be kept here? Because you’re creating an incentive to stay, what you are saying is inviting more people to come up here.

SECRETARY: The law requires that we act in the best interest of the child. So when we turn a child over to HHS within 72 hours, which is what the law requires us to do except in certain circumstances, HHS acts in the best interest of the child, which very often means reuniting that child with a parent. That’s what the law requires.

Reporter: Is there any limit to that legal requirement because there are a lot of children whose best interests are to live in the United States?

SECRETARY: The law requires that when we turn a child over to HHS. HHS then acts in the best interest of the child. Determines what is in the best interest of the child. Very often that means reuniting the child with his or her parent in the United States. That’s what the law requires.

SECRETARY: Yes, Ma’am.

Reporter: Secretary Johnson, two questions. In follow up with what [another reporter] has asked you, a lot of our audience that is watching us are Hispanics. Some of them are undocumented parents. We are getting calls. They’re wondering number one if they are undocumented does that disqualify them to even get to claim their children and keep their children here. Number two that if their income is not enough that would not be able to keep their children. And number three have there been deportations already of some of these children back to countries like Honduras. We know that the ones that are from Mexico you do the cross border but for the ones from Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador.

SECRETARY: My message to your readership, your audience of those who may have children in Central America who they want to reunite with, is that illegal migration is not safe. Illegal migration through the south Texas border is not safe. A processing center is no place for your child. Putting your child in the hands of a criminal smuggling organization is not safe. Your child will not benefit from DACA if they come here now. DACA is for those who came here 7 years ago. The legislation being contemplated right now, the earned path to citizenship is for those who came here 18 months ago. That is my message to those who are following you in the press.

Reporter: But what about those who are already here in the centers? We’re getting calls from people who want to find their children. They know their children are here because they got a phone call saying they are in the center.

SECRETARY: I am not encouraging in any way, shape, or form illegal migration. That’s the message.

Reporter: No, but what I am asking, Mr. Secretary is Maria Perez is an undocumented woman who has a child in a center already here. How does she claim her child? Maybe the gentleman from HHS...

SECRETARY: HHS has a process which they can explain, but they are required under the law to act pursuant to the best interest of the child.

Reporter: They will end up in foster care, for instance? Could you explain to us what is the process? If the parent is undocumented, does that disqualify them from reuniting with their children?

MARK GREENBERG: So let me clarify. So when the children come to us, they’re initially in these facilities, we seek to identify do they have a parent in this country. If they don’t have a parent in this country, or the parent is not an appropriate placement, is there another close relative, and if that’s not the case can there be a friend who is designated by the family. So our focus is moving the children out of the facilities and to a sponsor for this period. We do have a hotline that it is possible to call to get information if a parent believes that their child is in one of the facilities. But we also are reaching out and making contact to make those connections. So our duty is to get the child to a sponsor while they are with the sponsor they are still fully subject to the removal proceedings. And the removal proceedings and the sponsors have an obligation to cooperate with getting children to the proceedings, to cooperate in the removal process, and to report to DHS and to the Justice Department if there is a change of address.

Reporter: I have a follow-up if you can elaborate on two things. One, you said that you found out about this during your confirmation hearing process. You found out about this looming crisis at the border. So if you can elaborate about what you started doing then or what the DHS started doing during the transition period for you. Number one. And number two. If you can elaborate on a timeline on what the investigation on the border abuses, the abuses of the children, will entail. How are you going to hold those people accountable? What is the timeline for those investigations? When can we hear about initial results? Thank you.

SECRETARY: First of all, what I said earlier was that as I was becoming acquainted with the issues that face the Department of Homeland Security this was one of the important issues that I knew would be a priority in the confirmation process. We have been focusing now for some time on the Southwest border. We’ve devoted an unprecedented level of resources long term over the last number of years. Apprehensions, which tend to track overall attempts at illegal migration, have gone down. We’ve devoted a number of resources, personnel, technology to the Southwest border. There has been this recent influx focused in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. We have also in May developed a DHS-wide campaign plan to deal with the Southwest border generally, which calls upon the entirety of the resources of DHS, which I mentioned in my prepared remarks, and if there are gaps we will call upon other elements of the U.S. government to help us out. So we’ve been focused on the Southwest border for some time now in terms of resources and personnel.

SECRETARY: So, I think we’ve got time now for one more question. Pete, I’ve got to get someone in the back row.

Reporter: Thank you. Can you help us understand the legal requirement here: the best interest of the child? Does that mean that a child who comes into the U.S. illegally who has a parent here might be in a different immigration posture than someone who is not a child who comes into the U.S. illegally? Does the best interest of the child make a difference in terms of the adjudication?

MARK GREENBERG: Well if I could, as the Secretary said earlier, every child that we process is given an NTA and put in immigration proceedings. They have a chance to go in front of the immigration judge and plead their case. The immigration judge would make a decision should that child be removed or not. The child is a recent border entrant so they remain a priority of ICE.

Last Published Date: July 1, 2014
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