Thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who have trekked to the United States in recent months have no guarantees of citizenship or legal status, and are prioritized for deportation, officials said Thursday.
Three out of four minors who illegally cross the US border come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The children make the grueling journey of hundreds of miles through Mexico to escape dire economic conditions and violence in their home countries, and to join relatives in the United States.
"I am not encouraging in any way, shape or form illegal migration. That's the message," U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told reporters.
"Those who cross our borders today illegally, including children, are not eligible for an earned path to citizenship."
An immigration reform bill currently before Congress that has cleared the Senate aims to further secure U.S. borders, reform visa procedures and offer an eventual path to citizenship to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in limbo.
The federal government has also initiated a program for children illegally brought to the United States by their parents before reaching age 16.
Deportation against "dreamers" is deferred, and they are eligible to work on U.S. soil.
But requirements to qualify for the program include that applicants have lived continuously in the United States since 2007.
In recent months, a surge of unaccompanied children has flooded the southwestern border.
More than 47,000 children crossed illegally without an adult between October and May, nearly doubling the figure from the six months prior, in what President Barack Obama and leading lawmakers have termed a humanitarian crisis.
Officials expect that figure to reach 60,000 this year, said Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the administration of children and families at the Health and Human Services Department.
Most of the children were nabbed in Texas, and many have been sent to Arizona due to overcrowding at Texas facilities.
The Honduran Foreign Ministry said it had dispatched staff from its embassy in Washington to help migrants at shelters in Arizona.
The Honduran government has also undertaken a "number of actions to improve conditions for children located at different shelters in Texas."
Johnson said those caught illegally crossing the border were "priorities for removal," regardless of age.
The Department of Defense is loaning three military bases to process and shelter the children.
And Johnson said the government has "surged" federal law enforcement officers to crack down on human traffickers who operate along the border.
Greenberg said his agency has been building capacity to handle the increase of migrants, but was overwhelmed in recent months.
"What has happened in this most recent period is that the numbers, particularly since the beginning of May, have grown at a pace beyond what we had predicted and beyond what the Department of Homeland Security had predicted," he said.
"That's what has caused this most recent set of challenges."
Stressing the situation was dire, Johnson recalled meeting a 10-year-old migrant on Mother's Day last month.
When he asked her where her mother was, the girl responded she had none and was looking for her father in the United States.
"I returned to Washington the next day determined to do something about this situation," Johnson said.
Johnson said he planned to travel to Guatemala in July to address the crisis.
"We know we must do something to stem this tide," he said, noting he had been in touch with the ambassadors and other officials from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico.
© AFP 2014