Homeland Security secretary asks for new authority to send young migrants back home

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen takes part in a news conference after the IV meeting of security ministers of the Northern Triangle of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 20, 2019.PlayJose Cabezas/Reuters, FILE
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Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has asked for immediate action from Congress to address a “dire situation” at the border, including new authority to immediately deport unaccompanied minors back to their home countries.

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“Now we face a system-wide meltdown,” Nielsen wrote in a letter obtained by ABC News.

She also says she wants the legal authority to detain undocumented migrant families together, including young children, until their asylum claims are processed.

Nielsen’s letter is a bold ask of a Congress that remains unsure whether the humanitarian crisis at the border warrants the national emergency President Donald Trump has claimed is necessary.

“DHS seeks authority to return [unaccompanied children] to their families and home countries in a safe and orderly manner if they have no legal right to stay,” Nielsen wrote to Congress.

The secretary’s request underscores the unprecedented spike of children and families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have been forced to start releasing some families after regional detention centers hit maximum capacity last week.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen takes part in a news conference after the IV meeting of security ministers of the Northern Triangle of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 20, 2019. Jose Cabezas/Reuters, FILE
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen takes part in a news conference after the IV meeting of security ministers of the Northern Triangle of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 20, 2019.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been pressuring the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for emergency funds and is urgently looking at reprogramming to deal with urgent humanitarian needs, according to a source familiar with the department's thinking.

“We need temporary processing facilities with full humanitarian and staffing support,” Nielsen wrote.

Responding to President Trump’s threats on Friday to completely close the southern border, Nielsen will advise Trump on how to implement a full shutdown.

“I will make a recommendation accordingly to the President,” she said.

Nielsen acknowledged that children who cross the border and end up in U.S. custody “are being put at risk” as shelters hit max capacity.

Under current department policy, unaccompanied kids can be sent back if they're from originally from Mexico. The Secretary's request for new Homeland Security authority would allow unaccompanied children from other countries to be removed just as easily.

“The idea here is asking Congress to treat all children the same,” Nielsen said Friday.

Earlier this week, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan announced that hundreds of officers from border stations will be indefinitely reassigned to reinforce the agency’s security efforts.

The commissioner said 750 officers from stations across the border including San Diego, Laredo and El Paso, Texas.

“Right now it’s an immediate response to a crisis that’s overwhelming our capacity,” McAleenan said Wednesday.

Border Patrol has struggled to fully enforce security measures while transporting and caring for the record high numbers of migrants crossing without authorization, the commissioner said.