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US homeland chief visits immigrant holding center

ARTESIA, New Mexico -- U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited a New Mexico detention facility housing 400 Central American women and children Friday and warned immigrants that “we will send you back” if they try crossing into the country.

Johnson said the agency is working rapidly to open new detention facilities to house and more quickly deport the influx of immigrants fleeing violence, poverty and extortion in Central America.

On a tour Friday of a temporary center at a border patrol training facility in southeastern New Mexico, Johnson said more housing is needed so the administration can send a strong message back to Central America, where he said smugglers are telling families that if they make it to the United States they will get a free pass.

“Our border is not open to illegal immigration,” he said. “Our message to those who come illegally is we will send you back.”

After touring the recently opened center, he said staff told him that some of the immigrants told them they were surprised to be detained.

“This facility ... represents proof that indeed we will send people back.”

But without more beds, the department says immigrants caught entering the country illegally will continue to be released while awaiting their deportation and asylum hearings. Right now, they are detained only if there is a place to house them.

The Obama administration has requested emergency spending of US$3.7 billion to open more detention centers, hire more immigration judges and take other steps to deal with the border crisis. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, said Friday that the House won't approve it.

More than 57,000 unaccompanied Central American children have crossed since October, overwhelming Border Patrol facilities in South Texas.

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Department of Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson, right, walks to a podium after finishing a tour of the Residential Detention Facility inside the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico on Friday. (AP)

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