Unaccompanied children entering the United States at almost double the rate of last year are testing the limits of Department of Homeland Security capacity, as some 1,000 minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on their own were transferred to an Arizona “warehouse” that has not been used to hold people in years, according to the Associated Press. The children — including pregnant teens and a 1-year-old with diarrhea — are sleeping in plastic containers and haven’t showered in ten days, according to the Honduras consul to the United States, who visited the site.
The Obama administration declared an “urgent humanitarian situation” this week, and is now ordering thousands of toilets, cots, and other basic provisions for the thousands of migrant children in federal custody. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson declared “a level-four condition of readiness” in the Rio Grande Valley in May after seeing a McAllen, Texas Border Patrol facility overcrowded with children earlier this month. Photos released by conservative news site Breitbart purport to depict packed processing centers in Texas.
Thus far in the 2014 fiscal year, about 47,000 children have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border — a 92 percent increase over the previous year, according to Customs and Border Patrol figures. Federal officials have been transferring minors from Texas to other states to handle the surge. Almost all of the 750 children already transferred to Nogales, Arizona this week are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, where crime and corruption are associated with a surge in migrants fleeing the country. Another 300 were reportedly transferred to the facility by early Sunday morning.
Officials are reporting improved conditions in the facility, after photos shared online earlier showed children wrapped in aluminum blankets. Federal agencies have set up medical treatment at the center, including vaccinations and checkups. But the Arizona Republic reports that members of the media have not been allowed into the facility. Some of the children there will be reunited with family members in the United States. Many others, however, will be transferred to other temporary shelters at military bases.
There are several potential causes for the surge of migrants — particularly unaccompanied children — from Central America. It is clear that many are fleeing violence that goes largely unchecked by the government, and lack of opportunity. Others are traveling to join family members already in the United States. On Mother’s Day, Secretary Johnson and his wife visited a Border Patrol station. He told the New York Times the issue of unaccompanied children became “vivid” for him when Johnson asked one 12-year-old girl where her mother was, and she tearfully replied that she didn’t have one but was hoping to find her father in the United States,.
Some are also claiming that migrants are motivated by rumors of a welcoming political climate for migrants. But White House Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Muñoz has reiterated that these immigrants would not qualify for either temporary legal presence under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or for legal status under the Senate immigration bill. She said anecdotal evidence suggests these children have no knowledge of immigration reform and are simply fleeing violence in their home countries.
Under current law, unaccompanied children are subject to deportation just like other undocumented immigrants, but federal law does require that they be turned over to a refugee resettlement office within 72 hours, where officials must try to find an adult who can care for them while their immigration case proceeds. During their immigration cases, however, reports suggest that juvenile status is not given special consideration. Instead, they are treated as “adults in miniature,” according to the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Kids In Need of Defense. Under both the Senate immigration bill and House Democrats’ proposed bill, children would be given access to a lawyer during these proceedings, who would both be a watchdog to ensure their humane detention, and give them a fighting chance to argue that they are eligible for asylum or other exemptions from deportation.
Migrant kids are also vulnerable to abuse while being held in shelters. A May Houston Chronicle investigation found that at least 101 instances of reported abuse of minors by shelter workers.