Child Immigration Is Rising

South Texas is seeing a rise in children from Central America who have slipped across the border unaccompanied into the U.S. from Mexico after that country began deporting fewer kids who arrived without visas, some experts say.The influx across the U.S. border is causing a political outcry in the state, where the federal government has set up five temporary shelters to deal with the growing numbers of young immigrants.

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A dormitory room at a temporary shelter at an Air Force base in San Antonio housing young immigrants.ACF

From October to the end of April, the U.S. government has detained more than 6,500 unaccompanied minors who had crossed the border, nearly double the number detained in the comparable period the previous year, according to U.S. officials.

Most of them come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries that are close to Mexico's southern border, and generally range in age from 14 to 17, though some are younger.

The jump comes as illegal immigration is down sharply overall, thanks to declining immigration from Mexico paired with a rising number of people returning south from the U.S.

Picture drawn by immigrant children housed at the San Antonio shelter. Many of them come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. ACF

While young immigrants have been picked up in increased numbers all along the southern border, the situation has become particularly acute in Texas. In one shelter at an Air Force base in San Antonio, about 200 children live in a squat, brown military barrack, sleeping on cots.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized the situation in a letter to President Obama on Friday, calling the immigration surge a humanitarian crisis that the federal government wasn't doing enough to alleviate. He noted that dozens of young immigrants to the U.S. recently had to be quarantined due to a measles scare and an outbreak of chicken pox.

"By failing to take immediate action to return these minors to their country of origin and prevent others from coming, the federal government is perpetuating the problem," the governor wrote.

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A child's drawing. ACF

The White House referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security. A spokesman for the department declined to comment on the Mexican law or to discuss the reasons behind the increase in border crossings by Central American children.

Immigration experts say a Mexican law enacted last May, which lets some kids who enter that country remain there without visas for humanitarian reasons, allows more children safe passage to the U.S. border. The children are often transported by smugglers hired by family members, experts say.

"This is an unprecedented surge," said Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights in Chicago. "Kids started coming in January in large numbers and it hasn't stopped."

"In the past, unaccompanied children from Central America would be detained and deported" from Mexico, said Meredith Linsky, the director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, Texas, which provides legal representation to immigrants. Many of the children, she said, are escaping gang violence and poverty and seek to reunite with parents who are in the U.S.

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Shelters in South Texas are struggling to keep up with the influx, she added. "There are cots on the ground in gyms," she said. "They look like emergency shelters you would see run by the Red Cross."

Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican embassy in Washington, said in a statement that Mexico's new immigration law strengthens "the protection of non-accompanied minors in Mexico," and ensures that when children are deported, they are returned to their home countries safely. He said it is too early to tell whether the law had led to a decline in the number of children that Mexico sends back to their native countries. "Mexican authorities interview all non-accompanied minors and through established protocols, work with Consular officials from Central American nations in Mexico to ensure the minors return to their countries of origin safely," he added.

The federal Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the children were being well cared for at the temporary Texas shelters.

The kids have constant adult supervision and medical care, said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, as well as "three meals and two snacks daily." The agency said it allocated $33.5 million to cover additional costs associated with the surge in youth immigration.

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A child's drawing. ACF

Officials recently allowed a reporter to tour the temporary shelter at the Air Force's Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, but not interview detained immigrants. The children get English lessons and have access to a room where they can play videogames and board games and another where they can watch movies. Their dorm rooms were lined with drawings on green construction paper, with inspirational saying such as, "Without grief, there is no triumph."

Many of the children are quickly reunited with family members in the U.S. and remain with them while they fight against deportation—a difficult challenge, immigration experts said. Children not reunited with relatives are sent to permanent shelters. Authorities plan to operate the temporary Texas shelters through the end of the summer while permanent shelters expand to deal with the
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