By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned Central American parents against sending their children to the United States illegally, part of a White House effort to stem a flood of children crossing the border.
Johnson said children fleeing Central American countries faced a dangerous journey with no U.S. immigration permits awaiting them. Anyone caught crossing the border illegally is a priority for deportation, regardless of age, he said in an open letter to parents that ran in Spanish-language media during the weekend.
About 47,000 children unaccompanied by parents have crossed the southern border this year, including 9,000 in May, Johnson said. Most are fleeing gang and drug violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"To the parents of these children I have one simple message: sending your child to travel illegally into the United States is not the solution," Johnson said.
He said the desire to see a son or daughter have a better life in the United States was understandable.
"But, the risks of illegal migration by an unaccompanied child to achieve that dream are far too great and the 'permisos' (immigration permits) do not exist," Johnson wrote in the letter.
Children placed in the hands of criminal smugglers face potential abuse, sexual assault and sale into prostitution. Conditions for a border crossing also will get worse in July and August as temperatures rise, he said.
Johnson's warning came after the White House said on Friday it was earmarking tens of millions of dollars in new funding and expanded enforcement sites to deal with the surge of children.[ID:nL2N0P1117]
Republicans have blamed the influx on Democratic President Barack Obama's 2012 decision to give temporary relief from deportation to some young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
The U.S. Senate passed an immigration bill last year but legislation has stalled in the House of Representatives, where Republicans remain deeply split over what to do about the more than 11 million undocumented U.S. residents.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Bill Trott)