Breaking News Emails
The number of children who are caught trying to slip across the U.S.-Mexico border alone and illegally has quietly surged again more than a year after President Obama referred to the problem as an "urgent humanitarian situation."
While the world has been focused on Europe's migrant crisis, apprehensions of unaccompanied minors along America's own border have exploded: More than 10,000 undocumented children have been stopped in just the last two months, according to U.S. Border and Customs Protection.
The 10,588 apprehensions are a 106 percent increase over the same Oct. 1 through Nov. 30 period from last year, when 5,129 kids were picked up.
Apprehensions of family units — legal guardians with children under 18 — have proliferated too, with 12,505 detentions in those two months, representing a 173 percent increase from last year's 4,577 seizures in the same time frame.
In June 2014, during the height of the border crisis, Obama tapped FEMA to lead an effort across federal agencies to address the young refugees.
"There has to be some reason why people want to leave their home countries, particularly with kids."
"These children are some of the most vulnerable, and many become victims of violent crime or sexual abuse along the dangerous journey," the White House said in a statement on June 20, 2014, during the height of the influx.
Changes were implemented: Department of Homeland Security boss Jeh Johnson deployed 150 additional Border Patrol agents to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where the largest numbers of unaccompanied minors arrive, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And the administration approved a plan to allow young children from Central America to apply for refugee status in the U.S. as a way of discouraging them from making the risky trek across Mexico.
But recently, said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that represents unaccompanied children in their deportation proceedings, smugglers have changed their tactics, working around the points where the U.S. and Mexico are cooperating to intercept their routes.
"The smugglers have adjusted their routes and they're working around those border control points that the Mexicans have put in place, finding new routes," she told NBC News.
And the issues that prompt a family to send a young child away from their home country on a dangerous trek to the U.S. have only gotten worse, namely gang and drug-related violence.
"There has to be some reason why people want to leave their home countries, particularly with kids," Young said. "Families are making that incredibly heartbreaking decision to say if I'm going to protect my child from this, I'm going to have to send them out, because the governments are too weak or too corrupt to control the violence."
"We continue to aggressively work to secure our borders, address underlying causes and deter future increases in unauthorized migration."
In a statement sent to NBC News, U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it has "noted an increase" in the number of unaccompanied children and family units apprehended along the southwest border, and says it is working to "ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows."
"We continue to aggressively work to secure our borders, address underlying causes and deter future increases in unauthorized migration, while ensuring that those with legitimate humanitarian claims are afforded the opportunity to seek protection," a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said.
The government's Office of Refugee Resettlement expanded the temporary housing it puts unaccompanied children in from 7.900 beds to 8,400 beds in November, CBP said. The housing is dormitory-like, said Young, with education and modest healthcare offered inside the building; the children cannot leave the premises.
The kids stay in their temporary housing until Department of Homeland Security locates a relative within the U.S. to whom they can be released safely — but because they came in illegally, they are still in deportation proceedings. They aren't provided with government-funded counsel, so if they want to request asylum or pursuing special immigration juvenile status, they're dependent on pro bono lawyers, through groups such as Kids in Need of Defense.
"There's no silver bullet," Young said, but she suggested a multi-pronged response: provide counsel for those who arrive at the border to make court proceedings more efficient; put procedures in place for the return and reintegration in the home country of those who are found not eligible to stay in the U.S., so they are safe there and don't try to come back illegally; and work with other countries to strengthen their law enforcement and child welfare systems.
"That's not short-term. That's going to take a while," she said. "But if we don't start today, we're never going to get there."