Sen. Mark Kirk on Friday insisted background checks for unaccompanied minors crossing the border would protect children from violence while being housed in temporary shelters, citing apparent evidence that 16 minors came into the U.S. with gang tattoos.

The Illinois Republican’s comments come as President Barack Obama and Congress grapple with a burgeoning humanitarian crisis on the border. This week Obama asked Congress for emergency spending of $3.7 billion to deal with the waves of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing the border.

“I am not saying that they are all arrested criminals. In fact I know the government doesn’t have that information,” Kirk told reporters Friday. “I think for the safety of the kids, we should simply ask ‘Are there any people with criminal records in this group?’”

Kirk said 429 unaccompanied minors had been brought to the Chicago area in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and under the care of Heartland Alliance. Another 319 children have been placed with family members or sponsors in Illinois as of June 17.

The Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center is contracted out by the government to provide legal counseling for unaccompanied minors.

Kirk gave no timeline of when the minors came to the country but said he was told by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott that 16 minors came into the U.S.  with MS-13 tattoos. MS-13 is a violent street gang with ties to Central America. He gave no further details about his discussion with Abbott.

The senator said minors without criminal records should be reunited with their parents, even if their parents are undocumented and living here.

“They should go home to the parents,” Kirk said. “Send them back to their mom and dad especially if they’re in the U.S.”

Kenneth J. Wolfe, deputy director of the HHS Office of Public Affairs, said unaccompanied minors come into the U.S. without a parent frequently and have to be taken care of while their case is processed.

“These shelters are currently in many states, including Illinois,” Wolfe said. “These shelters are consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located.”

HHS pays for and provides all services for the children through its network of grantees, according to Wolfe. That includes food, clothing, education and medical screening.

“Children spend less than 35 days on average at the shelters and do not integrate into the local community,” Wolfe said. “They remain under staff supervision at all times.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Luis Gutierrez fired back Friday at Kirk’s request that U.S. embassies in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras provide information about whether they had performed background checks on unaccompanied aliens.

“Sen. Kirk should be ashamed of himself,” Gutierrez said. “These are children, and he is trying to paint them as criminals and make Americans afraid of children. That is shameful behavior. Rather than exploiting children to score political points, how about the senator works with the president to solve a national problem.”

Kirk told reporters that Gutierrez “purposely mischaracterized” his statement.  He also said he doesn’t know where the unaccompanied minors are and therefore has not been in contact with the agencies.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet