A rush of young children crossing alone and illegally into the United States from Texas is so large and unexpected that senior officials with the Obama administration said Monday the White House is asking Congress for about $2 billion to grapple with what is being called a humanitarian crisis.
Immigration agents are so overwhelmed that some children are being kept in detention and being processed during a longer time period than the 72-hour maximum requirement, these senior administration officials acknowledged. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Although they said they had been prepared for an increase this year in the Rio Grande Valley, the influx was much greater than anticipated. As many as 90,000 minors are forecast to enter the U.S. this year without their parents or guardians, the officials said.
But these officials also reiterated that the increased influx of unaccompanied children who are crossing illegally into the United States through Texas is due to escalating violence in Central America and not because of false rumors that people who cross will be eligible for some sort of permanent immigration relief.
The Obama administration request for the funds would cover costs of the Health and Human Services' Unaccompanied Alien Children program and is just the latest effort by federal immigration officials to contain the crisis.
Another $160 million is being sought for the Department of Homeland Security, these senior officials said. In addition, they said the U.S. is coordinating communications with Central American officials to educate people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador about the dangers of crossing without proper documents.
Over the weekend, 1,000 unaccompanied children were transferred from Texas to a makeshift emergency shelter in Nogales, Ariz. And the increase will continue into the foreseeable future, state officials said they were told.
Although overall illegal immigration has declined in recent years, two waves -- one of unaccompanied children, another of parents with children -- have presented a challenge for officials who say they don't have the facilities in the Southwest, particularly Texas, to detain these groups.
"The reason for this uptick and dramatic humanitarian situation has to do with what is going on in these Central American countries," one of the senior officials said. "These are countries and communities which are experiencing a great deal of violence, and what we hear from the children themselves is that violence is the major reason for them coming this way."
However, the Guatemalan consul and some Central American parents with children who made the perilous journey said they decided to make the illegal trek now because of rumors circulating throughout Central America that there was some sort of immigration relief if they gave themselves up to officials.
The presence of unaccompanied migrant children is nothing new, but the increase in recent months has overloaded Border Patrol stations and detention facilities, particularly in Texas. Most of the children come from Central America, a region long plagued with poverty but now facing with escalating drug cartel and gang violence.
On Sunday alone, 367 children were taken from Texas to a processing center run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Nogales, Ariz., according to Andrew Wilder, spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
Arizona officials — especially Brewer — criticized the transfers, arguing that state officials should have been notified about the influx. A contingent of Arizona legislators and community organizers toured the Nogales facility Monday.
The unaccompanied children housed there are supposed to stay for up to 72 hours before they are sent to longer-term facilities at military installations in California, Texas and Oklahoma.