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Everything You Need To Know About The Surge Of Unaccompanied Minors At The Border

A recent spike in the number of children crossing the U.S. border alone, and the subsequent strain on the immigration system, have sparked a national debate. Here is what you need to know.

Posted on July 15, 2014, at 5:07 p.m. ET

Children from countries in Latin America have been making the perilous journey to the U.S. border for decades, but there has been an increase in recent years.

Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

Starting in October 2011, the U.S. government recorded a dramatic rise in the number of children making the trip alone from three countries in Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

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The number of children crossing alone has especially surged over the past year, particularly in South Texas.

http://U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Via

Through the end of June, border agents had apprehended more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors along the Southwest border, twice as many as they did all of last fiscal year.

Three-quarters of them were picked up in the Rio Grande Valley, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

John Moore / Getty Images News

The majority of the minors hail from Honduras, the country with the highest homicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations.

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A large number also come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. However, the number of underage Mexicans crossing the border without an adult has actually dropped slightly from last year, and they are typically turned over to their home country's government soon after they are caught, unlike most Central Americans.

The undocumented minors vary in age. Many are teenage boys, but White House officials have said the children are getting younger and that border agents are increasingly seeing more girls.

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The wave also includes an undisclosed number of pregnant teenagers.

The federal government predicts the total number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border could reach 90,000 by the end of September, which would more than triple last year’s figures.

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Migrants from Mexico’s interior, Central America, and countries around the world have for years taken a treacherous route through Mexico to the U.S. border, with the help of paid smugglers known as "coyotes."

John Moore / Getty Images News

For many, the journey entails bribing municipal, state, or federal police at the Guatemala-Mexico border and a lengthy ride atop one of two famed northbound cargo trains commonly called “The Beast.”

John Moore / Getty Images News

Over the years, there have been countless reports of people losing their lives or limbs while trying to get on and off the moving trains.

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Migrants traveling through Mexico are also subject to kidnappings, extortion, theft, and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of drug cartels and other criminals.

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They are often swindled by the very people they hire to help them make the journey.

Until recently, the trains have been policed very lightly.

John Moore / Getty Images News

But the Mexican government said last week it would seek to “establish order” and that it would “not continue allowing migrants from Central America and also Mexicans to risk their lives on top of a train.”

The exact reason for the sudden increase in the number of children fleeing Central America for the U.S. remains unclear.

http://U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Via

Many are said to be escaping poverty, violence at the hands of street gangs, and sometimes domestic abuse. Others are said to be reuniting with parents or other family members already living in the U.S.

Some people have reportedly also been drawn by rumors of changes to U.S. immigration policies.

Jason Redmond / Reuters

Republican lawmakers have been especially critical of the Obama administration’s 2012 change in deportation policy toward young undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, the administration has pushed back, saying people who enter the country illegally now would not benefit from that policy or any provision of a Senate-endorsed overhaul bill that is currently stalled in Congress.

Some argue that Central Americans are taking advantage of a loophole in a 2008 law passed by President George W. Bush, intended to protect victims of human trafficking.

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The law, which dates back to the mid-1990s, requires that minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada be given an immigration hearing to determine if they apply for asylum.

Those children are typically transferred to the Health and Human Services department, which then tries to find a parent or sponsor in the U.S. to care for them until their immigration cases are resolved.

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It can sometimes take years for the cases to be resolved, and undocumented children can enter the public school system and receive some public assistance in the meantime.

In interviews with children after they are caught, federal agents have said they often hear about "permisos" or permits to stay in the country temporarily.

AP Photo/The Monitor, Gabe Hernandez

The U.S. government has launched Spanish-language campaigns in the U.S., Mexico, and some countries in Central America to dispel such rumors.

A March report by the United Nations Refugee Agency, which talked to hundreds of Mexican and Central American children seeking asylum, found very few of them cited U.S. immigration policy as a reason for fleeing their country.


The report also noted a 432% increase in the number of people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum in countries other than the U.S., such as Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize.

Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times / MCT

In early June, President Obama declared the surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The Obama administration launched a government-wide response led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

The government opened up temporary processing facilities at Border Patrol stations along the Southwest to supplement overwhelmed facilities in South Texas.

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They also set up temporary shelters run by Health and Human Services and federal contractors on military bases in California, Oklahoma, and Texas, as well as in vacant facilities in communities such as Tucson, Ariz. Earlier this month, the government set up a hub at the Houston airport to transfer children to those facilities.

President Obama has also requested almost $4 billion in supplemental funding from Congress in order to continue efforts to process and house the children.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

If granted, funding would also be used to send more immigration judges and agents to the border to fast-track the deportations of those that do not apply for asylum.

The White House has also said it will seek changes to the 2008 law to give immigration officials more “flexibility” to return unaccompanied migrant children more quickly to countries that don’t share a border with the U.S.

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The move has been criticized by immigrant advocates and some Democrats, who say doing so would deny the children due process.

The administration has also started working with the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico to improve conditions in those countries and discourage would-be migrants from leaving for the U.S.

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The White House is also seeking to increase penalties for smugglers.

Immigration attorneys say the bar for an asylum plea is generally set extremely high, and that the system is nearly impossible for a child without legal representation to navigate.

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The Justice Department in June announced a partnership with Americorps to provide legal assistance to some unaccompanied minors. Still, immigration and civil rights groups last week filed a suit against the Justice Department for not providing legal representation to children in deportation proceedings.

In addition to tens of thousands of children traveling to the U.S. border alone, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children from Central America apprehended at the border with at least one of their parents, in most cases their mother.

John Moore / Getty Images News

Border agents have apprehended 55,420 family units since October, compared to 9,350 in the same period last year. The 2008 law does not protect those children or their parents, so they are not transferred to HHS custody like the unaccompanied minors. Instead family units are sent to temporary housing or released after they are processed by Border Patrol.

Until recently, there was just one detention center in the country for families. The facility with less than 100 beds is located in Berks County, Penn.

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In late June, the government opened another facility for the same purpose in Artesia, N.M., and also started sending groups of children and their parents to Border Patrol stations in the San Diego sector for processing.

Generally, Central American families are released after they are processed and told to appear for immigration hearings in immigration courts near their intended destination.

AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

An undisclosed number have been released in North and South Texas, at bus stations in Arizona, and most recently in southern California.

The influx has resulted in the largest caseload in immigration courts to date, with 250 judges in charge of reviewing more than 375,000 cases.

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The Justice Department is looking to amend its rules to appoint temporary immigration judges to deal with the backlog.

Three buses carrying families of undocumented immigrants to a station in Murrieta, Calif., were turned back after they were met by protesters.

Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT

During the heated confrontation, one protestor spat on a popular Mexican-American singer. The immigrants were taken to facilities in San Ysidro for processing and plans to continue flying families of undocumented immigrants to southern California were later scrapped.

The government relies on humanitarian aid groups to provide shelter and basic necessities, as well as transport fare, to the families after they are released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Faith-based groups and immigrants rights advocates across the country have been collecting resources for unaccompanied minors and immigrant families.

The uptick in unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America has sparked a national debate about who or what is to blame, and whether the children should be allowed to stay.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Some politicians have expressed concern that if most of the children are not sent back, more will continue to come and drain resources to guard the border.

Politicians at the local level have also expressed frustration at the federal government for not alerting them when they planned to transport and release immigrants into their communities.

Mike Theiler / Reuters
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Others — stirred by reports of a few instances of communicable diseases like the flu and tuberculosis and parasites like scabies and lice — have suggested the wave of migrants could result in public health risks.

Sam Hodgson / Reuters

Experts have said the likelihood that the children will spread disease is low.

With Congress currently considering whether to allocate additional resources toward addressing the situation, the debate is likely to continue through the summer.

A previous version of this post incorrectly reported the county in Pennsylvania where a family detention center is located. It is Berks County.