Children who have come to the United States unaccompanied by adults as part of a huge influx from Central America tell immigration authorities they were sent here by their families because of the surge in violence in their homelands, said senior Obama administration officials on Monday.
A large number of the children, officials say, come from Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world.
The next two countries with the largest number of children coming illegally to the U.S.-Mexico border through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas are El Salvador and Guatemala, said the officials, who held a press conference to address what the administration has termed “an urgent humanitarian crisis.”
Authorities arrested 47,017 unaccompanied children on the border from October through May, up 92 percent from the same period a year earlier. A draft Border Patrol memorandum estimates that number could reach 90,000 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from a previous government estimate of 60,000.
“It is abundantly clear that the reason for the uptick …has to do with what’s going on in Central American countries,” said an administration official on the conference call.
Officials said they had been seeing a trend of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for some time, and had tried to prepared for an increase in the number of children coming. But they were caught off-guard by the volume, they said.
“The federal government prepared for this trend,” an official said, “but it was larger than we had anticipated.”
They said that, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, at the helm, they are building a coordinated federal response to the situation. Immigration officials interview and process the children, and begin deportation proceedings.
The Department of Health and Human Services is assisting in placing children whose parents or other relatives cannot be located in shelters or in foster homes, the officials said.
State and local government agencies and non-profit organizations are also helping, they said, in addition to pro-bono attorneys who are representing the children.
Asked by reporters whether a factor in the rise of unaccompanied minors had something to do with rumors in Central America that changes in immigration law might favor undocumented children, administration officials downplayed the idea.
They said that while it might have played a role in a few of the cases, interviews with the children made clear that deteriorating conditions in their homelands was the primary cause.
That is one reason, they say, the influx of children does not include a perceptible number of Mexicans, for whom it would be far easier to cross the border.
“If they were coming just for immigration, we’d see kids from other countries” besides Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the officials said.
Nevertheless, they added, the Obama administration is working with foreign governments to drive home the message that current and pending immigration laws providing some sort of relief to undocumented youth will not apply to those arriving now.
In a statement on its website Monday, the Department of Defense said it was making some buildings that it usually uses as training barracks available for the housing the children.
It announced that it was going to make facilities at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, available to the Department of Health and Human Services to house about 600 unaccompanied children, the agency said on its website.
It is the third Defense Department facility that HHS is using. Some 1,200 children are under HHS’s care at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and Naval Base Ventura County in California.
“They include beds, showers and office space,” the Defense Department said. “Health and Human Services representatives supervise the children and provide education and recreational opportunities until they can be reunited with families or placed in foster care.”
“Immigrant children who make the long and often dangerous journey to the U.S. alone represent some of the most vulnerable individuals who interact with the U.S. immigration system,” the statement said.
“Many are escaping abuse or persecution,” it said, “others are fleeing criminal gangs and violence, some are victims of trafficking or abandonment, and others seek to reunite with their families in the United States.”
Republicans, meanwhile, maintain that Obama’s lax immigration enforcement and policies have encouraged the influx at the border.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente