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Protests spotlight debate over undocumented migrant children

July 7, 2014 at 6:42 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A flood of undocumented immigrant children into the U.S., often risking their lives to escape violence in Central America, has sparked protests and debate around the country on how to handle their arrival.

It was a scene that launched the Southern California town of Murrieta into the national spotlight. Last Tuesday, dozens of protesters turned back three Homeland Security buses headed for the town’s Border Patrol station.

Inside the vehicles were 140 undocumented immigrants, mostly women and young children. They’d been flown in from Texas, where detention facilities have reached full capacity.

MAN: They’re coming here for free food, free housing, free medical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The protests drew new attention to a growing problem along the nation’s Southern border. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained since October illegally trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. Most hail from three nations, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, places rife with poverty, violence and smugglers offering to deliver the children for a price.

Once in the U.S., they have been taken to Border Patrol facilities in Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere, but their growing numbers have led to overflow sites, such as Murrieta.

MAYOR ALAN LONG, Murrieta, California: Murrieta expects our federal government to enforce our laws, including the deportation of illegal immigrants caught crossing our borders, not disperse them into our local communities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were more protests Friday on both sides of the immigration debate. President Obama has called the surge of unaccompanied minors a humanitarian crisis and says most will not remain in the U.S.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The journey is unbelievably dangerous for these kids. The children who are fortunate enough to survive it will be taken care of while they go through the legal process, but in most cases that process will lead to them being sent back home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it remains unclear just when the children being detained will be deported.

Sunday, on NBC, the secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson, referred to the complex process that applies to how they are dealt with.

JEH JOHNSON, Secretary of Homeland Security: There is a deportation proceeding that is commenced against illegal migrants, including children. We are looking at ways to create additional options for dealing with the children in particular consistent with our laws and our values.

DAVID GREGORY, “Meet The Press”: I’m trying to get an answer to, will most of them end up staying, in your judgment?

JEH JOHNSON: I think we need to find more efficient, effective ways to turn this tide around generally, and we have already begun to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, outside the White House, immigration advocates criticized the president for not doing enough to help undocumented families. The president is now preparing to ask Congress for more than $2 billion to hire more immigration judges and open additional detention facilities.