A dramatic spike in unaccompanied children and families trying to slip in across the U.S.-Mexico border may be "the new normal," officials say, with some believing the surge is linked to a federal ruling that ended long-term detentions.
The number of apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and family units — legal guardians with children under 18 — rushing the nation's southwestern border peaked last year, then fell off as Obama tapped the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out what to do about the young refugees.
But in recent months, apprehensions have proliferated again: More than 10,000 undocumented children have been stopped in just the last two months, according to U.S. Customs and Border 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 have jumped 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.
"We could very well be seeing the new normal," Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told NBC News.
Sources told NBC News that many Border Patrol agents and officials believe there may be a link between the current surge and a federal court ruling over the summer, when U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered federal officials to change how long they detain the thousands of mothers and children who are caught crossing illegally into the U.S. while fleeing violence in their home countries.
In a scathing ruling in which Gee said it was "deplorable" that families and young migrants are languishing in detention centers, she argued long-term detention is also in violation of an 18-year-old court settlement that restricted how long the government could house migrants while they pursue asylum. She gave federal officials until Oct. 23 to change the policy.
Under the new rules, an unaccompanied minor must be released from a federal detention center to a relative elsewhere in the U.S. after no more than five days, and their parent should be, too, so long as officials have determined they are not a flight risk. In rare exceptions, migrant children and families can be held up to 20 days, Gee ruled.
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The decision came several months after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson condemned long-term detention as "an inefficient use of our resources."
Critics call the number of migrants flowing into the country a security threat, but Homeland Security officials say families and kids crossing through is a humanitarian matter — not a threat in any way.
"People wouldn't be caught up in this kind of smuggling activity unless they felt a really strong reason why they have to flee their home country to begin with."
Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is among those who have spoken out against the new White House immigration policy, which he calls lax.
"The word is, come on ahead and the border is open, the Obama administration is going to take good care of you," Goodlatte told NBC News.
The new rules are "making the border less secure," he added.
"That word in turn is getting back to Guatemala, to El Salvador and Honduras, and the coyotes, human smugglers that are bringing people up from those countries, are spreading that word and it is catching on like wildfire," Goodlatte said.
But Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, which offers free legal services to unaccompanied migrant children, said keeping children in long-term detention once they arrive in the U.S. after a harrowing journey here can have a "devastating impact."
Plus, she added, the wave of migrants is driven more by the increase in gang and drug-related violence in their own countries — not a switch in policy once they arrive.
"It is certainly true that smugglers will use this kind of information to propagandize to try and attract more migration so that they can make more money," she said. "But I think fundamentally, we need to understand that people wouldn't be caught up in this kind of smuggling activity unless they felt a really strong reason why they have to flee their home country to begin with."
Sister Norma Pimentel is the Catholic Charities Director at the Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, which welcomes families once they have been released from detention centers by Border Patrol. The center offers them food and a warm shower.
"They're lured into wanting to leave their hometowns because of how the violence is going on in their countries," Pimentel told NBC News. "It's not safe to be there, they're afraid for their lives, and they find that others are doing the same. So they seem to find it very convenient, well, let's leave here and maybe hopefully somewhere up north may have a better opportunity to live more in safety."
Vilma de Montano, a mother of two teenagers, came from San Ramon, El Salvador, to the U.S. She and her children traveled through harsh terrain and on several buses during their 25-day journey.
She told NBC News she came to the U.S. illegally to meet up with her husband because her children were being forced to sell drugs at school in El Salvador, or else be killed.
"It hurts to leave our country. I love my country," she said.
But, she said, if she and her kids can stay in the U.S., "I think it will be better."
Elizabeth Chuck is a reporter for NBC News.
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent based in Miami where he reports for NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt, TODAY, MSNBC and NBCNews.com. He joined NBC News as a staff correspondent in 2004.
During his more than 40-year journalism career, Potter has reported from all over the United States, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, including Haiti, Cuba and Mexico. He has also worked in NBC's London and Hong Kong Bureaus, and has reported from China, the South Pacific, the Philippines and Israel. Much of his career was spent with investigative units at both the national and regional levels, and he has reported on topics including politics, narcotics, immigrant smuggling, environmental issues, natural disasters, international conflicts and numerous high-profile court cases.
Among the stories he has covered are the Cuban Mariel boatlift, the Grenada invasion, the arrest and trial of Panama's General Manuel Noriega, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Haitian immigration crisis, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Hezbollah-Israeli war, the 1980's Miami riots and cocaine crisis, the Theodore Bundy murder trial, the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Centennial Park bombing investigations, the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Everglades Valujet crash, scores of hurricanes, the Armero volcano disaster in Colombia, the Central American conflicts, the Elian Gonzalez legal battle, several Papal trips, the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, the Gianni Versace murder, the U.S. heroin epidemic, the Southwest border-security debate, the U.S.-Cuban political opening and the dramatic prison-tunnel escape of Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
For 15 years, prior to working at NBC News, Potter was a correspondent for ABC News, reporting for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Nightline and Good Morning America. He also worked for CNN, where among other duties he served as contributing correspondent for the Emmy-Award winning magazine show, CNN and Time.
Potter is the recipient of the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, a Robert F. Kennedy Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, National Headliner Awards, the 2011 national Emmy Award for "Mexico: The War Next Door," a 2015 Emmy Award for "Hooked: America's Heroin Epidemic," numerous Emmy nominations, and six regional Emmy Awards. He also received a 2015 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award.
Potter has often appeared as a guest lecturer in journalism classes at the University of Miami, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. His work is also featured in "Square Grouper," a 2011 documentary film about South Florida marijuana smugglers, and in “Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded,” a 2014 documentary about drug-related violence in Miami and Colombia.
Potter was graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and then worked for three local television stations in Evansville, Ind., and Miami before joining network news in 1983.