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By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Tuesday he had ordered five dozen additional criminal investigators to Texas to prosecute human smugglers responsible for bringing children across the border illegally.

Johnson disclosed the beefed-up federal presence during a sometimes-acrimonious congressional hearing in which Republicans blamed a 2012 decision to slow the deportation of immigrants brought the country illegally as children for sparking a surge in minors crossing the border.

House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), told Johnson that the United States needs to send a message that “if you come, you can’t stay.”

The number of children entering illegally has more than doubled since last year, federal statistics show.

Families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras pay smugglers thousands of dollars to bring children to the United States.

Johnson said that investigators last month arrested 163 alleged members of smuggling rings operating in El Paso, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, and San Diego.

“I think the key is the money trail,” Johnson said. “The money trail starts in the U.S., and if we can track the money, we go a long way toward solving this problem.”

Administration officials attribute the increase to rising violence in Central American cities and to false rumors about legal residency permits being awarded to children who reach the United States.

Johnson said that he is considering “every conceivable lawful option to address this situation.”

McCaul urged the Obama administration to deploy National Guard soldiers to help stem the flow of children.

National Guard troops have helped monitor surveillance cameras, fly aircraft, build fences, and man observation posts along the Southwest border. But the Pentagon has resisted activating more National Guard members because there isn’t a clear mission for them in this case, officials said.

“Having the Guard on the border has some limitations,” Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald D. Vitiello told the panel. “This work is best done by law enforcement agents.”

Vitello emphasized that it is “not a challenge to arrest” children and parents crossing with children. Most are surrendering themselves to Border Patrol agents.

By law, Customs and Border Protection must deliver unaccompanied minors to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services within three days. But with so many children now in custody, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has had to step in to help house them, said FEMA administrator Craig Fugate.

The Obama administration has created temporary camps at Border Patrol stations, as well as at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Calif.

Dormitories at a federal law enforcement training center in Artesia, N.M., are also being prepared for parents caught entering the country with children.

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), said that improving the conditions for children held in temporary holding centers and handing them over to their families “can look like a free pass.”

“It’s a much better life than they’re getting right now in Central America, so I don’t know how that’s going to in any way stall what’s happening,” King said.

The practice of uniting children found alone on the border with relatives in the United States undermines the message that migrants who cross the border illegally can’t stay, Republicans said.

Johnson confirmed that more than half of the unaccompanied minors from Central America were turned over last year to family members in the United States while deportation orders were under review.

Photo: Steve Hillibrand via WikiCommons

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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.