WASHINGTON — There is no time line for investigations into allegations of abuse by U.S. border authorities against unaccompanied minors because of a lack of specificity in the complaints, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Friday.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske has pledged to investigate the complaints about agents of the Border Patrol and officers of Customs and Border Protection made by some immigration advocacy groups, who are responding to a surge of tens of thousands of children crossing into the United States, many of them traveling alone. But Friday, he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he needs more detail about the suspected incidents.
“The lack of specificity, particularly when, where, what station, let alone the names of any individual, is extremely troubling,” Kerlikowske said. “The vagueness of the complaints is very concerning. That means (the investigations) will take longer.”
In what he called a “humanitarian crisis,” the number of these children attempting to cross into the United States already has increased 92 percent this fiscal year over last fiscal year, Kerlikowske said. More than 24,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border in 2013, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which is taking temporary custody of the children, estimates that 60,000 children could cross by the end of this year.
This week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the children would be taken under the care of HSS, which will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to reunite the children with their families in the U.S., send them home or find long-term care for them.
Kerlikowske, speaking on a wide range of topics related to border control, did not address a question about when he would make public the names of officers involved in allegations of abuse.
Kerlikowske said the complaints he saw did not align with his observations from his frequent visits with Border Patrol officers in Texas and elsewhere along the border. He praised the officers for their handling of the thousands of children coming across the border.
“I’ve watched them bringing in their own clothing. I saw the pictures of a birthday cake for an 11-year-old who had never had a birthday cake,” Kerlikowske said. “I’ve not quite seen the kinds of complaints I’m hearing about, and I’m a bit troubled because these men and women need our support.”
A coalition of immigration advocacy groups has filed complaints with the Obama administration alleging abuses by Border Patrol officers of unaccompanied children.
Cheryl Little, co-founder and executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, a member of the coalition, said there is no vagueness to the nine complaints her organization filed recently.
“Every complaint we filed with this administration has been extremely detailed,” Little said. “We haven’t so much as gotten a response from the government that our complaints have been received, let alone responded to.”
Little said a shelter is opening in Miami to house more unaccompanied children, who are as young as 4 years old. Many of the children whom Americans for Immigrant Justice sees are younger than 12 years old, she said.
Little said her group is taking one of its complaints to federal court in New York after receiving no response from the Obama administration.
On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the government would act in “the best interest of the child,” which often meant reuniting unaccompanied children with their parents, some of whom already live in the United States undocumented.
Little said in previous years parents hesitated to claim their child for fear they would be deported.