A recent surge in the number of children who are detained while illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents is an "urgent humanitarian situation" that has prompted the opening of special facilities to house them in San Antonio and at the naval base in Port Hueneme, the Obama administration said Monday.
Although unaccompanied children have been crossing the Southwest border for years, a surge in the last year has overloaded Border Patrol stations and detention facilities along the border, particularly in south Texas. Most of the children are from Central America, including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
About 120 unaccompanied children are arriving each day, officials said. The number has tripled over the last five years and could soon reach 60,000 a year. That number could grow to 130,000 a year in 2015, according to Obama administration officials.
More girls and children under age 13 are making the treacherous trek than in previous years, said Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of domestic policy.
"Both the scale and the humanitarian nature of this situation is what is causing us to ramp up and further unify our efforts," Muñoz said.
President Obama directed the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to join in an interagency Unified Coordination Group to address the situation.
Increased violence in Central America, the desire to reunify with parents and false rumors circulating in their homelands that unaccompanied children can stay indefinitely in the United States are fueling the surge, administration officials said.
The shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, which opened a few weeks ago, is housing nearly 1,200 children and is approaching capacity. The one at the Ventura County naval base is slated to open as early as Friday and will be able to house as many as 600 children.
The costs of caring for and resettling the Central American children could reach $2.28 billion next year, according to administration officials.
Under current immigration law, unaccompanied children from Central America present special circumstances because of their age. Adults can be returned to their home county quickly by immigration officials. However, children essentially become wards of the government and are cared for by the Department of Health and Human Services. Officials attempt to place them with a sponsor or family member in the United States.
In the meantime the children are given medical and mental health services, education and other aid. Children typically stay about 30 to 45 days in the facility before they are placed with a family member or sponsor.
However, the child is still placed in removal proceedings and has to appear before an immigration judge to make the case to stay. The child is not entitled to representation.
Some in the immigrant rights community calling Monday's announcement a step in the right direction.
Others blasted the administration.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) called the surge of children at the border an "administration-made disaster."
"Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama's lax immigration enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America," Goodlatte said in a prepared statement.
But Lisa Frydman, associate director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, said the children say they are fleeing violence in their homes in Central America.