The numerous arrivals of Central American and Mexican children to the U.S.-Mexico border have led Vice President Joe Biden to add a trip to Guatemala to his Latin America visit this week.
The visit starts with a trip to Colombia Tuesday and also includes stops in the Dominican Republic and Brazil, where the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament is ongoing. The Guatemala stop is Friday.
The children’s arrivals forced the addition to Biden's schedule. President Barack Obama has declared the issue a humanitarian crisis. Others have called it a refugee crisis or one created by the administration because of certain immigration enforcement policies.
Biden will meet with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and a Honduran representative, Coordinator General Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro, to discuss the marked increase in the number of children showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border on their own.
The White House announced the addition to Biden’s schedule in a Sunday phone call with reporters.
A total 47,017 unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border between Oct. 1 and May 31st, according to Customs and Border Patrol statistics. Of those, 34,611 were from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. The remainder were from Mexico.
Border officials can return children from Mexico if they determine their lives are not in danger. But children from countries that don’t border the U.S. must be processed in 72 hours and then sent to temporary shelters while parents or guardians are located and deportation proceedings are started.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, visited a shelter a military base in San Antonio over the weekend and said while the conditions are spartan they were satisfactory. He said 20 caseworkers from Baptist Children Family Service Association are doing the work of finding relatives of the children, who on average stay in the shelters 30 to 35 days.
"These kids were like any other kids you may expect to see in our community...one of the kids leads a Bible study for some of the other kids. When everyone is behaving, they allow them to listen to a boom box and they said that the kids pick out Christian music," Castro said, relaying what he was told by workers. "They are a very religious group of kids."
So many unaccompanied children have been arriving that the Border Patrol has had a tough time processing them within the time required and safely sending them to shelters. There also has been an increase in families arriving at a South Texas border station, but overall illegal immigration remains steady, officials have said.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., plans a hearing Thursday afternoon on the children that he's titled "An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Alien Minors." Goodlatte has blamed the arrivals on deferments of deportations for young immigrants here illegally, proposals in immigration reform bills to allow immigrants illegally in the U.S. to earn legal status and a lack of interior enforcement. The children arriving at the border, however, cannot apply for the deferments or the proposed legal status.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, visited the Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas where much of the influx of children and families has been occurring. He said Border Patrol officials "commented to me that we cannot enforce ourselves out of this problem."
"Bringing more officers or paying for overtime is not the way to address this influx of migrants. We need a change of policy and we need to find long term solutions," Cuellar said.
Cuellar said he spoke to children ranging in age from 9 years to 16 years old. One boy who gave his name as Andy, 11, was lost on the border for half an hour before being found by Border Patrol. Emilia, 9, was lost for a day. Elvis, 16, was injured running from coyotes and the Border Patrol, Cuellar said.