The Obama administration said it will open new detention facilities to house immigrant families caught crossing the border illegally, amid a surge from Central America.
Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Friday the administration was actively looking for additional space to house immigrant families, primarily mothers with young children, caught crossing the Mexican border illegally. He did not say how many people the new family detention centers would house or where they will be located. The government currently operates only one such facility, in Berks County, Pa., with space for fewer than 100 people.
Mayorkas said about 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended at the border since the start of the budget year in October. The administration has released an unspecified number of them into the U.S. in recent months with instructions to report later to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. Mayorkas, the No. 2 official at the agency and former head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told reporters he didn't know how many people have been released or subsequently appeared as ordered.
Mayorkas said the administration will also send more immigration judges, ICE attorneys and other immigration officials to the region to help process immigrants caught crossing the border illegally and, when possible, quickly return them to their home countries.
Immigrants crossing the border illegally have overwhelmed U.S. immigration agencies. More than 174,000 people, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have been arrested in Texas' Rio Grande Valley this year.
The spike in border crossers — southern Texas is now the busiest border crossing in the country — prompted the Homeland Security Department earlier this year to start sending families to other parts of Texas and Arizona for processing before releasing them at local bus stops.
Family detention has long been a contentious issue for Homeland Security. In 2009 the department was forced to shutter a large family detention center in Texas after legal challenges about the conditions of the facility. And in 2012, ICE abandoned plans to accept bids for a new family detention center in Texas amid complaints from advocates about the possibility of housing immigrant families in jails.
Also Friday, House Speaker John Boehner urged President Barack Obama to send National Guard troops to the southern border to help deal with the surge of children and other immigrants. More than 52,000 children traveling alone have been caught crossing the border illegally since October.
Former President George W. Bush deployed thousands of troops to the border during his second term to augment the Border Patrol as it bolstered its ranks. Since then, the agency has nearly doubled to more than 20,000 agents and the number of immigrants caught crossing the border illegally has declined overall.
Mayorkas said the administration only recently received Boehner's letter and will review it to understand how lawmakers envision the role of the National Guard. He said immigration enforcement at the border and elsewhere is a civilian law enforcement job that is being ably handled by the Border Patrol and other parts of the Homeland Security Department.
The administration also announced Friday a series of other steps it hopes will help curb the flow of illegal immigration from Central America, including meeting with Central American officials. Vice President Joe Biden is in Guatemala.
Other announcements the administration made about illegal immigration from Central America Friday include:
—The administration will give the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala $9.6 million to help local authorities reintegrate returned immigrants.