Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee that U.S. officials were waging a competing public relations campaign "to counter misperceptions that smugglers may be disseminating about immigration benefits in the United States.
"Our embassies in Central America have collaborated with [Customs and Border Protection] to ensure both the language and Images of the campaign materials [from the United States] would resonate with local audiences," Johnson said of the campaign. "I have personally issued an open letter ... to the parents of those who are sending their children from Central America to the U.S., to be distributed broadly in Spanish and English, to highlight the dangers of the journey, and to emphasize there are no free passes or 'permisos' at the other end."
It's the latest narrative from the administration to explain why some 52,000 unaccompanied children have been caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since October, with the number expected to grow to 90,000 through this year.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest also noted the smugglers' role, saying poverty, crime and desperation in Central American countries makes the young people "easy targets" for misinformation from human traffickers.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, agreed the narrative was problematic but noted that the problem only arose after the Obama administration relaxed its rules on deportation of immigrant minors.
"A series of executive actions by the administration to grant immigration benefits to children outside the purview of the law -- a relaxed enforcement posture -- along with talk of comprehensive immigration reform" are the real source of the mounting problem along the border, said McCaul.
McCaul produced flyers circulated in Central America promising families U.S. citizenship for their children if young people made it across the border.
"A narrative shapes behavior and encourages people to come to our country illegally," McCaul continued. "In fact, newspapers in El Salvador and Honduras seem to be encouraging youth to head to the United States. ... Recent internal DHS surveys of these children reveal that more than 70 percent believe they are going to stay in the country."
He said the administration needs to do more to counter the false narrative that amnesty awaits those who try to enter the U.S.
Johnson said his department's plan includes more than $211 million in federal funds being thrown into the region, including $9.6 million to Central American governments to help them repatriate the citizens that made it to the United States and then were apprehended and sent back.