ASPEN, Colo.—DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson confirmed Thursday that the Obama administration in January anticipated a surge of some 60,000 illegal children crossing the Southwest Border.
So far, only two cases among the flood of illegal immigrants this year raised concerns that terrorists were entering the United States, Johnson said during remarks to a security conference.
Johnson recalled visiting a detention center in Brownsville, Texas, in January where 82 percent of a group of 995 detainees were from 30 different countries, most from Central America. The rest were Mexicans.
"It was apparent to me then that the Rio Grand valley sector of the Southwest border needed to be an area of particular concern," Johnson said during remarks at the Aspen Security Forum.
"In January, in our budget process, we estimated that we were going to have 60,000 unaccompanied kids coming in," he said, noting that resources for the influx were "ramped up."
The border crisis grew worse during the period between March, April, and May when "unprecedented levels" of children crossed the border, he said. The surge peaked with thousands of illegals reaching the U.S. border in early June.
The illegal immigrants have created a security and humanitarian crisis that has taxed both law enforcement and health authorities who are trying to deal with the immigrant children. Thousands have been housed on military bases and there have been outbreaks of disease at the detention centers, including pneumonia and swine flu.
The comments by the DHS secretary indicate the Obama administration had months of warning about the problem.
Conservative news outlets reported in June that DHS sought bids for a contract Jan. 29 seeking help in handling 65,000 unaccompanied alien children.
The influx of children was based on information circulated outside the United States indicating that if foreign immigrants could reach U.S. soil the government was required to take them in.
Johnson said the flood of children declined when many were deported.
Johnson said in early May he telephoned officials of Central American countries to try and stem the illegal migrant flows.
Since then, DHS has been mobilizing resources and the number of border crossers has declined.
"But it could spike back up again at any moment," Johnson said.
The secretary said that unless Congress approves additional funding to deal with the crisis, "we’re going to run out of money."
President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in new funds to deal with the crisis.
Asked if terrorists are using the influx of illegal immigrants to gain entry into the United States, Johnson said the problem is a concern.
But he said the number of potential terrorists among those detained at the border so far has been low.
"In so far as the illegal migration into the Rio Grand Valley sector, we’ve seen very very little evidence of that, very few indicators of that," Johnson said.
However, he added: "We’ve got to be very vigilant when it comes to that, that someone doesn’t try to take advantage of this surge."
Pressed for details on the potential entry of terrorists, Johnson said those that are apprehended are closely scrutinized for indicators. "And if there are indicators somebody might be motivated by terror, that is a fact that is noted in regular reports," he said.
So far, authorities have detected "one or two potentially problematic cases" indicating a terrorist connection, he said.
Johnson also said there is a real threat that U.S. and western nationals who travel to Syria to fight with Islamist rebels will return to conduct terror attacks in the United States and the West.
"The numbers are very troublesome," Johnson said of the westerners fighting in Syria.
However, he said a more serious threat is posed by nationals of non-U.S. western countries being radicalized in Syria and then gaining easy access to the United States because of lax visa restrictions for allied countries.
"The larger problem is tracking those nationals of other countries that go to Syria," he said.
Johnson said Yemen and Syria pose the most serious threat of spawning terror attacks against the United States.
Johnson said a major concern is the Islamic State of the Iraq and Levant (ISIL or ISIS), an al Qaeda offshoot, gaining territory in Iraq.
"When terrorists acquire territory, they almost always try to attack the United States, he said.
Terrorism against the United States has evolved from the main al Qaeda group to al Qaeda affiliates and now a more decentralized grouping of Islamists, like those that attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, he said.
"We’re now seeing an evolving picture of more groups that are spin offs. … It’s still a dangerous world," Johnson said.