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DHS Secretary: ‘Not Pleasant to Send Somebody Back to Central America’

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at a special naturalization ceremony commemorating World Refugee Day in New York on June 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson pushed back on calls from immigration advocates to cease deportations of undocumented Central American immigrants for the rest of President Obama’s term, arguing that such a move would lead to a “humanitarian crisis.”

Johnson also said DHS is promoting the Central American Minors (CAM) program as an alternative to children from Central America crossing the border illegally.

“The reason not to do that is we don’t have open borders, and if we ceased removals we would have a humanitarian crisis. There would be a surge for the exits if we ceased removals. I think you know that. We have not been happy with the numbers, which is why we are expanding the publicity around the existing CAM program,” he said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

“We’ve expanded the scope of it — the perimeters of it. We are very pleased that Costa Rica has stepped up to be involved in country processing and it is something that we would definitely like to see more of. Government is about limits, however. We have a defined number of asylum screeners, refugee screeners – and we have a world refugee crisis emanating from the Middle East, which we are surging resources to,” he added.

Johnson said no level of border security would stop illegal entries over the southern border.

“No wall, doubling the size of Border Patrol, all of these things will not stop illegal migration from countries as long as a 7-year-old is desperate enough to fully, on her own, to travel the entire length of Mexico because of the poverty and violence in her country. So we want to invest in these countries. Congress has already invested $750 million,” he said.

“We want to establish a safe, alternate legal path. This is the good advice I got two years ago when we were dealing with the [minors] crisis then. Somebody said to me, ‘you can’t just shut the door.’ You have to provide a safe, legal alternate path. Have the numbers of those who have applied and been accepted been what we like to see? No, which is why we have to expand it,” he added.

Johnson reiterated that someone is a priority for deportation if they’ve been apprehended at the border and ordered removed by a U.S. immigration judge.

If they have “exhausted their appeals and have no claim for humanitarian relief and have not qualified for humanitarian relief under our laws, then we have to send them home,” Johnson told reporters. “That is the message that I have consistently sent and that is what we are doing.”

On a weekly basis, Johnson said DHS has about 15-18 flights of migrants sent back to Central America.

“We don’t have open borders and we have to enforce the law consistent with our priorities. Is that pleasant? Not necessarily. I have spent a lot of time in South Texas at our processing centers with a lot of kids and it is not pleasant to send somebody back to Central America. We have laws,” he said.

Johnson also told reporters DHS is focused on preventing a “terrorist-directed” attack where operatives are “sent from overseas to try to infiltrate our borders” or “our airspace with a terrorist attack.”

As examples of “terrorist-directed” attacks, Johnson mentioned 9/11, underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in 2009, the 2010 attempted Times Square car bomb and shoe bomber Richard Reid.

“Now we live in an environment where have to be concerned about terrorist-directed attacks but also terrorist-inspired attacks,” he said. “Terrorist-inspired attacks make for a more complicated world because the terrorist operative very often self-radicalizes.”