Children traveling without their families, including an "overwhelming" number younger than 12, are flooding across the southwestern border in the latest test of the Obama administration's immigration policy.
Homeland Security Officials predict that 60,000 minors will cross the border this year and that the number will double next year, accounting for an astonishing percentage of people trying to jump the border — braving the tremendous perils of crossing Mexico and trying to evade border authorities, hoping to eventually connect with family in the U.S.
The administration seems powerless to stop most of the border breaches and instead has searched for ways to manage the flow of vulnerable, and politically sympathetic, immigrants.
On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will raise the issue with Congress. He will recount his trip this month to the border in Texas, where he saw such children, which the government calls "unaccompanied alien children," or UACs.
"I have been closely following this emerging issue since coming into office, with a particular focus on the Rio Grande Valley," Mr. Johnson will tell the House, according to his prepared testimony. "I traveled to McAllen, Texas, to view the situation and saw the children there firsthand — an overwhelming number of whom were under 12 years old."
Officials are grappling with how the U.S. should handle children inside the border and whether there is any way to stop the flow.
Under U.S. law, the children are entitled to special protections and can't be put straight into deportation proceedings, as adults are.
Instead, they are screened for trafficking concerns. Once processed, they are placed with either foster families or sent to their own families in the U.S. while they apply for asylum or a special juvenile visa, said Marc R. Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute's U.S. immigration policy program.
"Those policies make a lot of sense because these are a vulnerable population," he said.
In some cases, Homeland Security officials are sending the children to be with their parents — even when those parents are known to be living in the U.S. illegally. A federal judge in Texas blasted the department for that practice late last year, saying the government essentially had become complicit in criminal activity.
"The DHS is rewarding criminal conduct instead of enforcing the current laws. More troubling, the DHS is encouraging parents to seriously jeopardize the safety of their children," Judge Andrew S. Hanen wrote in a court order.
The children are chiefly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and have to cross through Mexico, braving the elements and smugglers to eventually arrive at the border in Texas, where they generally try to cross. Reports of rape are common among the girls.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees released a study this year that surveyed more than 400 of the children as they arrived in the U.S. and found nearly half of them were fleeing drug cartels or gangs in their home countries. Still others were fleeing abusive homes.
"I am here because the gang threatened me," one 15-year-old girl from El Salvador, identified only as Maritza, told the UNHCR investigators. "One of them 'liked' me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags."
The number of unaccompanied children has spiked even in the past few weeks, said Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron, who said the rise has strained her department and the Department of Health and Human Services, which under the law is responsible for caring for the children.
HHS has asked for space to house up to 1,000 children at Lackland Air Force Base, and the government is trying to find even more facilities.
Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson has sent staff to southern Texas to make sure children are receiving medical care. He also has directed his department to develop "an aggressive public messaging campaign to outline the dangers of and deter" the children from trying to cross, the spokeswoman said.
"DHS is expanding awareness campaigns targeting potential crossers, in their home countries, in an effort to warn them of the extreme dangers associated with attempts to illegally enter the United States while also underscoring the fact that illegal crossers — including children seeking to reunite with families — are not eligible for legal status, including under prospective legislation," Ms. Catron said.
But she acknowledged that the government has limited tools to stem the flow.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the numbers have been rising steadily for several years, and that the administration should have been better prepared.
"This is a crisis on the level of the Mariel crisis. This far outstrips the agency's capacity to deal with it in the normal way," she said, referring to the 1980 mass emigration from Cuba. "But they saw this coming, too. They estimated months ago that it was going to be double the prior year and they don't seem to be taking any steps to prevent it from happening."
She said releasing the children into the community, where they live for years while awaiting a final decision on their cases, will encourage more families to send their children.
"I would argue that it would be perhaps more humane to deal with it firmly so that people stop taking the risk of putting children through this smuggling ordeal," Ms. Vaughan said.
That is probably unthinkable for an administration that has carved most illegal immigrants in the interior of the U.S. out of danger of deportation, and is searching for more ways to halt deportations.
Left with few other options, the administration has pleaded for help from Mexico, which is the first to see the border crossers.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised the issue during a recent visit to Mexico City.
For now though, the administration continues to struggle.
Mr. Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute said he is able to come up with good policy answers to most immigration questions, even if they are not politically possible. But in this case, he said, that's not true.
"On this one, there's really not a good policy answer," he said. "Anything you do to protect those kids creates perverse incentives for other families to send their kids, and anything you do on enforcement puts them back in those bad situations."
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