By: Julia Preston
Reacting to a new surge in unaccompanied children crossing the southwest border illegally, the federal government is moving to open two shelters in Texas and one in California this month, adding at least 1,400 beds to handle the increased flow, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.
Alarm bells sounded in Washington after officials saw the sharp rise in the numbers of youths without their parents who were apprehended by border authorities in November, mainly in South Texas. A total of 5,622, mostly from Central America, were caught at the border with Mexico, more than double the number stopped in November 2014.
The figures, which started rising in July, are worrisome for the administration because illegal crossings typically fall off during the fall and winter.
On Monday, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, asked the Pentagon to also prepare tentative plans to provide shelter for 5,000 more youths. Those beds are not needed at this time, officials said, but the health department, which runs the shelters, would give the Department of Defense 30 days’ notice to get them ready if the numbers of young border crossers continue to rise.
Officials are expanding shelters for the youths “out of an abundance of caution,” said Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, to prevent disruptions to the “vital national security mission” of the Border Patrol.
The administration is hoping to avoid the overcrowded Border Patrol stations, overworked agents and hastily arranged shelters of the summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied youths and families poured across the border.
The sharp rise in illegal crossings, which also includes families traveling with their children, comes as President Obama, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris, is trying to reassure the nation that the borders are under control, and that the administration is effectively vetting foreigners coming into the country to keep out terrorists.
The young people are coming mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and several factors seem to be causing their rising numbers. The biggest increase recently is in young people from El Salvador, where violence by brutal international criminal gangs has proliferated. The country was on track this year to become the “murder capital of the world,” one official said, with more than 4,750 murders in the small country so far in 2015, giving it the highest homicide rate of any nation.
Many teenage boys say they are fleeing forced recruitment by the gangs, and girls say they fear sexual assaults. The officials said economic conditions have deteriorated in Guatemala, where most youths came from during the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1, and in Honduras, where gang violence is also rampant.
Mr. Obama will press his case to Congress to authorize $1 billion for the three Central American countries, for economic development and programs to fight corruption and gang violence.
The health department can currently house up to 8,400 youths in its shelters, and that capacity has not yet been exceeded, officials said. But Secretary Burwell still moved to open the two shelters in Texas, adding 1,000 beds, and the one in California, adding 400 beds. The health department is working with other agencies to “ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows,” said Mark Weber, an agency spokesman.
In 2014, Texas officials fiercely criticized Mr. Obama for his handling of the border crisis after Homeland Security officials declared a humanitarian emergency and opened a shelter for youths at an Air Force base near San Antonio.
While the numbers are fast increasing — the sharp rise first came in October, with 4,951 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors reported — they are still well below the totals of children and families who crossed in the influx last year. Illegal crossings by migrants from other countries not in Central America, including Mexico, are at the lowest levels since the 1970s.
By law, the Border Patrol is required to turn over unaccompanied minors it apprehends within 72 hours to the health department, which houses them in shelters until they can be united with family members or other sponsors. To avoid the chaotic conditions of the summer of 2014, Customs and Border Protection opened a facility in August 2014 in a warehouse in McAllen, Tex. Youths and families are sent there from the front-line Border Patrol stations to be booked and dispatched to health department shelters or to three existing detention centers for families with children.
Border officials said the flow of unaccompanied minors in South Texas had not yet caused strain on their operations. They noted that the youths generally do not try to run away from Border Patrol agents, but instead turn themselves in, hoping to receive asylum