(Reuters) - The U.S. Homeland Security secretary sought to discourage Central American parents on Thursday from sending their children to join a wave of unaccompanied migrants from the region flooding across the U.S. border.
But officials also said they are deploying the full resources of the U.S. government, including three military bases, to humanely house the young migrants in a response similar to how federal agencies handle natural disasters.
Between October and May, more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, have crossed into the United States, nearly double the number in the previous 12 months, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told a news conference in Washington.
While U.S. officials attributed the spike to poverty and rising gang violence in Central America, Johnson sought to dispel any notion by parents that their children might qualify to stay in the United States as part of immigration reform efforts before the U.S. Congress.
“Those who cross our borders today, including children, are not eligible for an earned path to citizenship pursuant to that legislation,” he said. “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.”
Federal officials under President Barack Obama have focused on turning back unauthorized immigrants stopped in border regions and deporting others elsewhere who are convicted of serious crimes.
The Obama administration has designated an Oklahoma Army base, the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and Naval Base Ventura County in Southern California as facilities to temporarily house hundreds of unaccompanied children from this wave of border crossers.
Earlier this week, immigrant rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the government alleging systemic abuse of more than 100 unaccompanied children detained by immigration authorities.
Seeking to demonstrate the care being provided to detained migrants, federal officials on Thursday led a media tour of a former military processing center at Naval Base Ventura County where over 160 unaccompanied migrants between the ages of 13 and 17 are held.
In one room housing dozens of girls, bunk beds were neatly made with a teddy bear or plush animal placed at each pillow. The children are given bedding, T-shirts, a fleece-lined jacket and other clothing, including gray hoodies many wore as they walked around the facility.
In one classroom, boys sketched images from National Geographic magazines, and hand-drawn flags of Central American countries such as Guatemala and Honduras made by the teenagers as art projects lined the facility’s hallways.
The Obama administration is working to quickly transfer the children to relatives or sponsor families in the United States who must commit to bringing them to immigration hearings where they could face deportation, officials said.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler