President Barack Obama called the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border an urgent humanitarian situation on Monday and directed federal officials to lead a unified and coordinated response.
The flow of children crossing the border without parents or guardians has been growing over the last few years. Last year, nearly 25,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the southwest border. By the end of this year, an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors are expected to arrive in the U.S.
The influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) across the southwest border of the United States has resulted in an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated Federal response, Obama said in a memorandum released Monday.
Obama also stated in the memorandum that he has directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to establish an interagency group of individuals who will provide humanitarian relief to unaccompanied minors. This includes providing the minors with housing, care, medical treatment and transportation.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate, under the oversight and guidance of Johnson, has been tasked to lead and coordinate the effort.
Johnson said in a statement on Monday that DHS will coordinate closely with a number of federal agencies to deal with the surge in migrant children crossing the border alone. Among the agencies are the departments of State, Defense and Health and Human Services.
As I have seen firsthand and stated repeatedly, addressing the rising flow of unaccompanied children crossing our southwest border is an important priority of this Administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Johnson stated.
Studies show many unaccompanied minors make the long journey to the U.S. to escape violence and abuse in their native countries. Most of them are between the ages of 12 and 17 and come from Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
When unaccompanied minors are caught attempting to cross the border, they are apprehended by Border Patrol officials and transferred to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
At these shelters, children are given food, clothes, medical care and an education. They are also assigned a case manager and an attorney to help them obtain immigration relief to remain in the U.S.
The New York Times reported earlier this month that the recent surge in migrant children trying to cross the border by themselves led DHS to set up an emergency shelter at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The shelter now holds about 1,200 minors.
Another shelter will soon open up at the Naval Base Ventura County in Oxnard, Calif. That shelter will house an estimated 600 children.
Johnson told The New York Times that the influx of unaccompanied minors had zoomed to the top of my agenda after he encountered small children including one who was 3 years old during a recent visit at the McAllen Border Patrol station in Texas. It also led him to declare a level-four condition of readiness, which is the highest level of contingency planning within DHS.
The increase in children trying to cross the border by themselves also led the Obama administration to ask Congress for an extra $1.4 billion to go toward the Unaccompanied Alien Children program, according to the Associated Press. It had originally asked for $868 million, the same amount Congress approved last year.
The Obama administration is also working closely with the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to reduce the number of unaccompanied children traveling to the U.S.