White House wants extra $1.4 billion for child migrants

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration underestimated how much money it would need to deal with a continued increase in unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America trying to cross the Mexican border and is asking Congress for an extra $1.4 billion.

In a two-page letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Office of Management and Budget said the increase in children trying to cross the border alone has created an “acute humanitarian situation” that could cost the government as much as $2.28 billion. The Obama administration originally asked Congress for $868 million for the “Unaccompanied Alien Children” program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the same amount Congress approved last year.

Brian Deese, deputy director of the budget office, asked Mikulski, D-Md., and other appropriators to be flexible with funding for the HHS program, which deals with these unaccompanied children, and the Homeland Security Department because estimates could change for how many children may be found at the border.

Deese said the Homeland Security Department would also need an extra $166 million to help pay overtime costs for Customs and Border Protection officers and agents, contract services for care of the children and transportation costs.

The number of children found trying to cross the Mexican border without parents has skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of children landing in the custody of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement fluctuated between 6,000 and 7,500 per year. That number shot up to 13,625 in 2012 and surged even more — to 24,668 — last year. The total is expected to exceed 60,000 this year.

A House appropriations subcommittee voted last week to add $77 million to the original request. Deese sent the letter to Mikulski a day after the House subcommittee vote.

It is unclear why the administration didn’t initially ask for more money to deal with child immigrants, given the significant increases in the last few years.

More than 90 percent of those sheltered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, many driven north by pervasive violence in their home countries. They are held in agency-contracted shelters while a search is conducted for family, a sponsor or a foster parent who can care for them through their immigration court hearings where many will apply for asylum or other special protective status. Border Patrol agents have said that smugglers are increasingly notifying authorities once they get children across the Rio Grande so that they can be picked up.

The growth has surpassed the system’s capacity to process and house the children. Last month, the Office of Refugee Resettlement had to turn to the Defense Department for the second time — the last was April 2012 — to help house children in barracks at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio.

The Rio Grande Valley in South Texas has become the epicenter for children found trying cross the border illegally alone. The federal government last month opened an emergency operations center at a border headquarters there to help coordinate the efforts.

The White House was expected to announce Monday that FEMA Director Craig Fugate is now in charge of coordinating the response at the border.

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