With border authorities in South Texas overwhelmed by a surge of young illegal migrants traveling by themselves, the Department of Homeland Security declared a crisis this week and moved to set up an emergency shelter for the youths at an Air Force base in San Antonio, officials said Friday.
After seeing children packed in a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Tex., during a visit last Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Monday declared “a level-four condition of readiness” in the Rio Grande Valley. The alert was an official recognition that federal agencies overseeing borders, immigration enforcement and child welfare had been outstripped by a sudden increase in unaccompanied minors in recent weeks.
On Sunday, Department of Health and Human Services officials will open a shelter for up to 1,000 minors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, authorities said, and will begin transferring youths there by land and air. The level-four alert is the highest for agencies handling children crossing the border illegally, and allows Homeland Security officials to call on emergency resources from other agencies, officials said.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Johnson said the influx of unaccompanied youths had “zoomed to the top of my agenda” after his encounters at the McAllen Border Patrol station with small children, one of whom was 3.
The children are coming primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, making the perilous journey north through Mexico to Texas without parents or close adult relatives. Last weekend alone, more than 1,000 unaccompanied youths were being held at overflowing border stations in South Texas, officials said.
The flow of child migrants has been building since 2011, when 4,059 unaccompanied youths were apprehended by border agents. Last year more than 21,000 minors were caught, and Border Patrol officials had said they were expecting more than 60,000 this year. But that projection has already been exceeded.
By law, unaccompanied children caught crossing illegally from countries other than Mexico are treated differently from other migrants. After being apprehended by the Border Patrol, they must be turned over within 72 hours to a refugee resettlement office that is part of the Health Department. Health officials must try to find relatives or other adults in the United States who can care for them while their immigration cases move through the courts, a search that can take several weeks or more.
The Health Department maintains shelters for the youths, most run by private contractors, in the border region. Health officials had begun several months ago to add beds in the shelters anticipating a seasonal increase. But the plans proved insufficient to handle a drastic increase of youths in recent weeks, a senior administration official said.
Mr. Johnson said Pentagon officials agreed this week to lend the space at Lackland, where health officials will run a shelter for up to four months. The base was also used as a temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant youths in 2012. It became the focus of controversy when Gov. Rick Perry of Texas objected, accusing President Obama of encouraging illegal migration by sheltering the young people there.
Mr. Johnson said the young migrants became a more “vivid” issue for him after he persuaded his wife to spend Mother’s Day with him at the station in McAllen. He said he asked a 12-year-old girl where her mother was. She responded tearfully that she did not have a mother, and was hoping to find her father, who was living somewhere in the United States, Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said he had spoken on Monday with the ambassadors from Mexico and the three Central American countries to seek their cooperation, and had begun a publicity campaign to dissuade youths from embarking for the United States.
“We have to discourage parents from sending or sending for their children to cross the Southwest border because of the risks involved,” Mr. Johnson said. “A South Texas processing center is no place for a child.”
Officials said many youths are fleeing gang violence at home, while some are seeking to reunite with parents in the United States. A majority of unaccompanied minors are not eligible to remain legally in the United States and are eventually returned home.
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