Federal officials plan to open new shelters in Texas and California this month, adding at least 1,400 beds, after a surge in unaccompanied migrant children crossing the Southwest border this fall.
Last month, more than 5,600 unaccompanied youths were caught at the southern border, mostly from Central America, more than double the number apprehended last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protections figures.
The surge is likely prompted by smugglers taking new routes to the border, economic hardship and the unchecked violence in places such as El Salvador.
Since Oct. 1, there have been 10,588 youths caught at the border, more than double the number in the same period last year.
The increase comes at a normally slow time of year for migrants, and the spike worries officials who struggled to cope last year with a total surge of more than 68,000 children that overwhelmed border shelters and holding areas, especially in Texas.
By law, Border Patrol must turn over unaccompanied youths to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. From there they are sent to shelters until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors.
In addition to the new shelters, which would include 400 beds in California and 1,000 in Texas, the secretary of Health and Human Services has asked the Pentagon to line up 5,000 more beds for the young people. During last year’s surge, the military opened emergency shelters to house the migrants at bases in Oxnard, San Antonio and Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.
“We’ve notified them that we may need those beds,” said Mark Weber, an agency spokesman, adding that Pentagon officials are checking the availability of shelter beds and it was not clear where they might be.
The health department already expanded from 7,900 to 8,400 youth shelter beds last month “in anticipation of the need,” Weber said, and they are not yet full. But they are working with other agencies to plan and “ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows,” Weber said.
“We have not run out of capacity. We want to make sure we’re ready if we need it,” he said.
During the summer surge of 2014, Border Patrol converted a warehouse near the border patrol station in McAllen, Texas, into a holding area where youths are kept until they can be placed in shelters.
In the recent wave of migrants, most of the youths came from Guatemala, followed by El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras.
The share from El Salvador has increased as gang violence there has escalated. Last year a two-year truce dissolved between El Salvador’s two largest gangs: 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, both of which originated in Los Angeles.
By the end of this year, the homicide rate in El Salvador — a country of 6.5 million — may exceed 90 per 100,000 people, a level of violence not seen since the country's bloody 12-year civil war ended in 1992.
Another factor in the rising numbers is the increasing success rate of smugglers who, after crackdowns in Mexico and the U.S. last year, appear to have arranged alternative routes and payoff relationships with Mexican officials, border analysts say.