Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Tuesday that human traffickers are putting out the word that the United States will give kids a free pass if they can make it across the border, and said the government needs to make it more clear that there are no "permisos" waiting for kids once they arrive.
"What is critical is we correct the record, we straighten the misperceptions," Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee Tuesday morning.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Tuesday that human traffickers are telling Central American families that their children will be allowed to stay in the United States. He said DHS is working to counter these false promises of 'permisos.' (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
"The smuggling organizations are creating a misinformation campaign that there's a 'permisos,' or free pass," he added. "I've even heard that you have to get here by May 2014 in order to get your free pass.
"So the smuggling organizations have an incentive to induce these kids to have their families pay money to smuggle them up here."
Johnson's testimony follows his Senate testify from earlier this month, when he said the Obama administration's immigration policies are not the cause of the immigration flood. Instead, he said poor economic conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are the main cause.
Johnson repeated that argument today, even as Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said he believes Obama's relaxed immigration policies appear to be a factor as well.
"What is new is a series of executive actions by the administration to grant immigration benefits to children outside the purview of the law – a relaxed enforcement posture – along with talk of comprehensive immigration reform," McCaul said.
"This administration should send an unambiguous message that those arriving will be promptly sent home," McCaul added. "I, for one, do not want to see another child harmed because we have not clearly articulated the realities on the ground, consistent with current law.
McCaul said he was glad to see that Johnson wrote an open letter to the parents of children crossing into the U.S., which says there are no free passes. "This is a good start but more must be done," he said.
"This is a crisis that has been in the making for years – one that we should have seen coming – but few concrete actions have been taken. The Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. government as a whole, has been slow to act, turning a blind eye to the warning signs."
Johnson outlined several steps he has taken to deal with the crisis at the border, including beefing up border agents, increasing capacity for dealing with the thousands of children, and increasing detention facilities. He said under current law, detained children must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Johnson said children who are detained are immediately told they will be assigned to a deportation hearing, and said "That's not a free pass." But Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) questioned that, and said to some in Central America, having their children cared for in the United States may still look like a free pass.
"A five-year old child getting an order to show up in immigration court… are you going to actually deport that child? To me it is a free pass, from their perspective," King said.
But Johnson said he doesn't see it as a free pass, "particularly given the danger of migrating over 1,000 miles through Mexico into the United States."