McALLEN, Texas — An unprecedented surge of children caught trudging through South Texas scrublands or crossing at border ports of entry without their families has sent government and nonprofit agencies scrambling to expand their shelter, legal representation and reunification services. On any given day this year, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement has been caring for more than 2,100 unaccompanied child immigrants.
The influx came to light last week when 100 kids were taken to Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio for temporary housing. It was the first time the government has turned to the Defense Department — now, 200 boys and girls younger than 18 stay in a base dormitory.
While the issue of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. isn't new, the scale of the recent increase is. From October 2011 through March, 5,252 kids landed in U.S. custody without a parent or guardian — a 93 percent increase from the same period the previous year, according to data released by the Department of Health and Human Services. In March alone, 1,390 kids arrived.
"The whole community right now is in triage mode," said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that matches pro bono attorneys with unaccompanied minors navigating the immigration system. "It's important that the resources and the capacity meet the need, and we're not quite there yet."
The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities in 10 states range from shelters to foster homes and have about 2,500 beds. Government-contracted shelters were maxing out their emergency bed space, setting up cots in gymnasiums and other extra spaces.
"It's a much more limited set of services," said Lauren Fisher of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which helps children and their families navigate the system. "It felt something like a Red Cross shelter, a hurricane shelter."
Unaccompanied children are first processed by the Department of Homeland Security, and then turned over to the ORR while the deportation process begins. Once in a shelter, the search begins for their relatives or an acceptable custodian, while nonprofit organizations try to match the children with pro bono attorneys. When a custodian is found, the child can leave the shelter and await immigration proceedings.
Eighty percent of the children referred to the ORR end up in a shelter, according to a report released last month by the Vera Institute of Justice — a nonprofit that developed a program to better provide access to legal services for children. The average shelter stay is 61 days, and the report found that at least 65 percent of the kids end up with a sponsor in the U.S.
The cause of the surge remains a mystery to child migrant advocates and government officials. The kids are coming from the same places as usual —Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico — and they offer the same range of explanations: they made the trek to look for parents already in the U.S.; they're seeking economic opportunity to send money home; they want to escape violence or abuse.
"We're talking to the children, but we don't have one solid answer," Fisher said. "There seem to be the same reasons that we've seen before."
Some have suggested that human smugglers are more aggressively marketing their services. Others wonder if the Border Patrol, whose presence has doubled in recent years, is simply catching more of them. But Border Patrol apprehensions of children and adults were cut in half from 2008 to 2011, and only 5 percent of those caught are unaccompanied children. Younger children commonly cross with adult smugglers at the ports of entry, while older kids join groups that follow guides through the brush.
A South Texas woman told border authorities this month that the 5-year-old girl accompanying her at the international bridge connecting Hidalgo, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico, was her sister, according to court records. She even presented a Texas birth certificate. But the girl couldn't answer basic questions, so the woman told customs officers that she wasn't related to the girl at all. She said that a man whom she worked with in Mexico offered her $2,000 to "cross" the girl — who was actually from Guatemala — and accompany her to Houston. The woman was charged with transporting an illegal immigrant.
This week, the first ladies of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala spoke at a three-day conference on unaccompanied minors in Washington, D.C. Mexico's first lady, Margarita Zavala, and Honduran counterpart Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo noted that tougher U.S. border security made it more difficult for parents working in the U.S. to return for their children, a suggestion as to why parents increasingly would put their children in a smuggler's care.
"The statistics are worrisome," said Rosa Maria Leal de Perez, Guatemala's first lady. "We've had 6,000 unaccompanied children repatriated in the last year."
The Department of Health and Human Services limited its public statements on the unaccompanied migrant children program, but it allowed a few reporters to take a short tour this week of the housing at Lackland Air Force base. They were not allowed to speak with children.
The beige, nondescript four-story dormitory is located deep on the base. When children arrive, they are issued black duffel bags filled with clothing and are allowed two phone calls a week. Three-quarters of the children are boys, most between 14 and 17 years old.
Green cots were spaced two feet apart along the stark-white walls. A media room held a large flat-screen television and a video game console; there were also board games and an outside area with a basketball hoop and two soccer goals. The kids play outside for an hour each day.
"We are looking to add some educational features that are appropriate for a 30-day temporary program," HHS spokesman Jesse Garcia said, though the goal is to move kids to more established accommodations within 15 days.
As of late Friday, 83 kids had already been transferred out of Lackland, most to permanent facilities. Nineteen had been reunited with family.
Associated Press writer Paul Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.