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Crisis at the border mounts with surge in unaccompanied minors

Public officials are attempting to downplay alarms that the migrant children stopped at the border are passing on contagious diseases.
Three young boys wait as Border Patrol agents process a group of 22 migrants who have just crossed the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas.
Three young boys wait as Border Patrol agents process a group of 22 migrants who have just crossed the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas on June 18, 2014.

Public officials are downplaying alarms that the undocumented migrant children stopped along the southwestern border in unprecedented numbers are passing on contagious diseases. But the emergence of at least one scabies outbreak at a Border Patrol facility in the San Diego region is the latest evidence of the mounting logistical and political problems facing the Obama administration as it scrambles to cope with the border crisis using a system ill-equipped to handle the challenges. 

The Associated Press reported late Monday that the Obama administration would not be pressing forward with a proposal to expedite deportation proceedings for the thousands of migrant children after facing harsh opposition from immigration and human rights advocates. White House officials have said they plan to present a $2 billion request to Congress Tuesday, yet it remains unclear whether they will bring the deportation proposal up separately. 

"We do know that there are active cases and we do know that agents have contracted these diseases."'

According to reports, roughly 40 immigrants being detained at the San Diego-area facility have active cases of scabies. At least one Border Patrol agent from that sector has contracted the disease, which is caused by a mite that burrows into the upper layer of a person’s skin, after they processed undocumented immigrants at a facility in Otay Mesa, Calif.

“We do know that there are active cases and we do know that agents have contracted these diseases,”  Shawn Moran, vice president for the National Border Patrol Council Union, told msnbc. “It’s always a concern that somebody is going to have some type of contagious disease, we’ve just never seen it in the numbers that we’re seeing now.”

Ralph DeSio, a spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego sector, could not confirm the scabies outbreak but said agents have taken “extraordinary measures” to care for the children being temporarily detained there and have controls in place to minimize any possible health risks.

“We are conducting public health screens on all incoming detainees to screen for any symptoms of illnesses and contagious diseases of possible public health concern,” DeSio said in a statement. “If any serious symptoms are present, individuals are referred to a medical provider or healthcare facility for treatment and medical clearance.”

Meanwhile, states and municipalities are being left to fend for themselves because of the continuing political stagnation over immigration reform. Los Angeles on Monday announced that local law enforcement officials would no longer detain undocumented immigrants for federal immigration officers to potentially deport them. Federal agents must now present a court order or arrest warrant in order to have local authorities hold immigrants, NBC News reports.

The ACLU in southern California hailed the move and said the organization sent letters to public officials urging other cities in the state to follow suit. "We trust and expect that these cities will follow Los Angeles' lead and end this unconstitutional practice," ACLU officials said in a statement Monday.

A day earlier, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged that the program mandating local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents, known as Secure Communities, is in need of reform. Los Angeles is only the latest major city to openly defy the program after a major court ruling found that it violated the constitutional rights of immigrants. "I think the overarching goal of Secure Communities is a good one, but it needs a fresh start," Johnson said on Meet the Press

The health concerns being raised are not isolated to the California region. In McAllen, Texas, where immigration enforcement agents are witnessing the brunt of the surge in unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S., public officials are working to quell rumors that the community’s safety was endangered and say there is no cause for panic. 

"McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley are not facing a health crisis," the city's mayor, Jim Darling, wrote in an op-ed this weekend. "Health professionals on the ground dealing directly with the families have not detected or reported, at this point, any serious health conditions among this group of families."

Residents are raising concerns that public officials and community organizers tasked with providing shelter and aid to the immigrant families once they’re released from detention centers are not being warned of any potential risks.

“Physicians, they said there had been cases of scabies here,” Rocky Solano, a volunteer at a shelter providing aid to immigrant families in McAllen, Texas, told msnbc. “If that’s true, I think the public people should know.”

"Our brothers and sisters are fleeing violence."'

 The death of immigration reform in Congress, along with the recent surge in migrant children being stopped along the southwestern border, has snowballed into both a humanitarian crisis and a political challenge for the Obama administration. President Obama will be in Texas this week, but for a fundraising event -- not to survey the crisis. Meanwhile, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have attempted to cross into the U.S. since October in numbers that could grow to as much as 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.

The administration is scrambling to dispel false rumors that the children coming to the border qualify for the same temporary reprieve from deportation enforcement afforded to so-called DREAMers who were brought to the U.S. before June 2007.

Border Patrol Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske unveiled a new “Dangers Awareness Campaign” last week meant to deter families from making the treacherous journey in the first place. The campaign is dedicating outreach and events to countries across Central America, Mexico and even parts of the United States. It will include everything from billboards to more than 6,500 public service announcements to run on radio and television in the coming weeks.

“Our message to those who come here illegal: Our border is not open to illegal migration,” Johnson said Sunday. “And we are taking a number of steps to address it, including turning people around faster. “

The administration is under intense pressure to stem the flow of kids coming to the United States and return them to their home countries, but the situation is delicate for officials. A law enacted in 2008 under President George W. Bush actually expanded protections for children who were fleeing from violence in the home countries. The measures ensure that any child from countries that do not share a border with the United States has access to plead their case before an immigration judge.

With immigration courts backlogged and working beyond capacity, the childrens’ cases are often drawn out for many months, even years, before they are resolved.

The Obama administration may now hold back seeking to expedite that process. In an appeal to Congress last week, President Obama asked for more than $2 billion in funding to send to the southwest, resources to boost border security and the approval from lawmakers to speed up deportation proceedings for these children.

A number of human rights and refugee advocates warn that steps to expedite due process for the migrant children could backfire in a number of ways. Many children are fleeing from conditions of extreme violence and poverty in their home countries, and advocacy groups argue that those kids could potentially have legitimate claims to seek asylum in the U.S.

Advocates also caution that the administration could face dire political optics if it chooses to deport thousands of children at once and haul them in planes back to the dangerous conditions they were trying to escape.

"Our brothers and sisters are fleeing violence. We don't want the U.S. government to treat our children as criminals," Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland and Virginia, said at a rally near the White House in Washington, D.C., Monday.

Lawmakers nearby on Capitol Hill, and not just Republicans, are saying that speeding up deportations is the only option.

“We have to send them back, because if you don’t you’re going to incentivize people throughout that part of the world to keep sending their children here,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday.