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Washington (AFP) – U.S. authorities are increasing deportations of illegal migrants along the U.S. border, as a top Obama administration official defended the White House’s handling of a flood of undocumented children.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told NBC television’s Meet the Press that officials have reduced the “turnaround times” for migrants illegally entering the country along the Mexican border.

“I believe we’re going to stem this tide,” said Johnson, who added that President Barack Obama’s administration is also intensifying efforts to discourage migrants, including thousands of unaccompanied children, from making the dangerous and difficult overland journey to the United States.

“There are no free passes once you get here” for those entering the U.S. without authorization, Johnson warned.

“Our message to those who come here illegally: our border is not open to illegal migration. There is a deportation proceeding that has commenced against illegal migrants — including children,” the domestic security chief said.

The immigration issue has gained new urgency in the United States after 52,000 unaccompanied minors crossed illegally into the U.S. via America’s southern border since October.

President Barack Obama is due to travel to Texas later this week, but Johnson would not say whether a visit to the state’s border areas is on his agenda.

Meanwhile, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — from which most of the child influx is coming — agreed to launch a multimedia and church-centered campaign against youths migrating illegally to the United States, a Salvadoran foreign ministry spokesman said.

And Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and his Guatemalan counterpart Otto Perez said they will launch a program on Monday aimed at tightening control over Central American migrants, getting people of all ages moving through Mexico in the federal system.

Evasion is currently rampant.

Representative Henry Cuellar said holes in U.S. law were to blame for the massive influx of migrants into his state of Texas, especially from Central America.

“If you’re a Mexican, you get sent back — mother, kids, adults, you’re sent back,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

“But if you’re a noncontiguous country like the Central American countries, then the law says that you are going to be held by (the Department of) Health and Human Services, and they’re going to place you,” Cuellar told CNN’s State of the Union.

“That’s the law that we need to change right now.”

Cuellar accused the White House of being caught flat-footed by the crisis.

“It’s not the first time we have seen a surge,” Cuellar said. “The administration should have been ready.”

Obama’s Republican foes said the administration’s policies encouraged the influx.

“What has to be addressed is the security of the border. You know that. I know that. The president of the United States knows that,” said Texas Governor Rick Perry, speaking to ABC television’s This Week.

“I don’t believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United states is secure. And that’s the reason there’s been this lack of effort, this lack of focus, this lack of resources.”

Senator Lindsey Graham said the administration was guilty of sending the wrong signals to migrants in Central America.

“This is a specific problem created by the impression that if you get to America, you can stay,” said Graham.

“We’ve got to turn that impression around, send these children back home, and tell the countries in question if you don’t keep them, we’re going to cut all aid off.”

Overwhelmed by the massive waves of mostly lone child migrants crossing from Mexico into Texas and Arizona, the U.S. government has been forced to transfer some of them to detention centers elsewhere, including in California.

The tense debate took a contentious turn in recent days, when residents of a California town refused to allow three busloads of undocumented migrants from Texas to relocate there.

AFP Photo/Mark WIlson

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.