ARTESIA, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited a New Mexico detention facility housing 400 Central American women and children Friday and warned immigrants that "we will send you back" if they try entering the country illegally.
Johnson said the agency is working rapidly to open new detention facilities to house and more quickly deport the influx of immigrants fleeing violence, poverty and extortion in Central America.
On a tour Friday of a temporary center at a border patrol training facility in southeastern New Mexico, Johnson said more housing is needed so the administration can send a strong message back to Central America, where he said smugglers are telling families that if they make it to the United States they will get a free pass.
"Our border is not open to illegal immigration," he said. "Our message to those who come illegally is we will send you back."
After touring the recently opened center, he said staff told him that some of the immigrants told them they were surprised to be detained.
"This facility ... represents proof that indeed we will send people back."
But without more beds, the department says immigrants caught entering the country illegally will continue to be released while awaiting their deportation and asylum hearings. Right now, they are detained only if there is a place to house them.
The administration has requested emergency spending of $3.7 billion to open more detention centers, hire more immigration judges and take other steps to deal with the border crisis. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, said Friday that the House won't approve it.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., accompanied Johnson on the tour. On a call with reporters Friday afternoon, Heinrich said that in addition to opening more centers, the administration needs to engage with the Central American countries the immigrants are fleeing and crackdown on the smugglers who are persuading families to pay thousands of dollars to send their children here, then "leaving them in unsafe conditions."
"We need to make sure we go after the people who are misleading families," he said.
Johnson was also scheduled to meet Friday with officials in Weslaco, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, which has seen the biggest surge in illegal crossings.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied children and tens of thousands more Central Americans traveling as families have crossed the border since October, overwhelming Border Patrol facilities in South Texas.
The Artesia Center was opened in barracks of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. It now holds about 400 people but eventually will hold about 700 women and children, Johnson said.