A surge of children crossing the southern border and entering the United States illegally has become a political crisis. House Republicans hammered the White House on the issue in recent days, while the administration countered by highlighting how it has responded.
But what’s really going on?
1. How big is the surge?
From Oct. 1, 2013 to June 15, 2014, 52,193 unaccompanied children, defined as those under the age of 18, were apprehended crossing the southern border of the United States. That’s about double the 26,206 who were caught in the same timeframe the previous year.
In addition, 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended during that time period, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
2. Where are the children coming from?
About three-quarters of the children come from just three countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The increase in unaccompanied children from those nations began in the 2012 fiscal year and has accelerated since then, according to DHS data. There are about 10 times as many children from those countries crossing the border as there were in fiscal 2011. Meanwhile, the numbers from other Central American countries have remained steady. The number of children arriving illegally from Mexico actually declined in the most recent fiscal year.
3. What are the root causes?
There are several, but strife in those three countries, together with untrue rumors of “permisos” allowing children to stay in the United States, play a big part.
The surge in children crossing the border without permission began before the Obama administration announced its new policy of not deporting many young illegal immigrants, in June 2012. Many Republicans blame that policy for the crisis.
At the end of April 2012, the number of unaccompanied children had already roughly doubled from a comparable period the previous year. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees surveyed 404 children who crossed the border. The report concluded that the “overarching patterns” for why the children made the journey were “violence by organized armed criminal actors and violence in the home.”
The report added that, for the children from El Salvador, “only one child mentioned the possibility of benefiting from immigration reform in the U.S.”
The influx to other countries in the region has increased as well, suggesting that the situation is not entirely due to U.S. policies.
The report noted that since 2009, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have collectively seen a 432 percent increase in asylum applications from the same three countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
On the other hand, the Obama administration has itself acknowledged that rumors of legal status being available to minors who enter the United States illegally are part of the problem.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, cited in a June 20 call with reporters “misinformation that is being deliberately planted by criminal organizations, by smuggling networks, about what people can expect if they come to the United States.”
Some immigrants appear to be confusing notices to appear in immigration court with permits granting them legal status. “I heard in Guatemala that people were caught by immigration, but then they let them go and gave them a permit,” Carmen Ávila, a 26-year old mother who came with her 4-year-old son, told The New York Times
4. Can’t the United States simply deport illegal immigrants, even if they are minors?
Not right away. A 2008 law requires that DHS turn unaccompanied children over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. The law then states that they should be placed in the “least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
HHS says that as of May, about 85 percent of the children it serves are reunited with their families. In recent days, however, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson reiterated that “anyone who is apprehended crossing our border illegally is a priority for deportation, regardless of age.”
Johnson emphasized children received notices to appear before an immigration judge, not permits to stay in the country. The administration has not released data on how many children show up to their proceedings and are deported.
Many of the children might also be eligible to stay legally. The U.N. refugee report found 58 percent of the children it interviewed could be eligible for international protection, such as asylum.
5. How thinly are U.S. resources being stretched?
The DHS’s capacity is overwhelmed by the number of children. It has only one permanent family detention center, in Pennsylvania, with just 96 beds. The administration is now deploying more resources.
The administration is dealing with the influx by creating temporary detention facilities to house the children before they can be transferred to HHS, including at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has admitted the 72-hour limit for transfer is not being met.
The administration requested $1.4 billion for the HHS office resettling the children, is launching USAID programs in the three Central American countries to try to head off the migration in the first place, and is sending in more immigration judges to deal with those who have been detained. There was already a shortage of immigration judges, meaning that hearings often take years.