WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Monday declared a wave of unaccompanied children across the U.S.-Mexican border an urgent humanitarian situation and directed federal agencies to coordinate a response to provide housing and other services.
Officials said the response – which is being led by Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate – will provide the children with medical treatment, food and mental health services.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, 24,668 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexican border in fiscal 2013. Officials expect the annual number will jump to nearly 60,000 by the end of fiscal 2014.
The children that are arriving are a particularly vulnerable group, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said on a conference call. They have often survived a hazardous journey to have arrived here.
Officials said most of the children are from Mexico and Central America, and are fleeing violence and poor economies in their countries or are seeking to be reunited with family members in the United States, officials said. They often are brought to the border by smugglers known as coyotes.
More than 1,000 minors are being housed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Officials will fly other children to a base in Ventura County, California, that can house up to 600 and probably will open later this week. Lackland opened its doors to the children last month. Most children are housed in group homes that are operated by a contractor.
The children stay in a facility for an average of 30 to 45 days and are released to a parent, relative or sponsor. The release of a minor, however, doesn’t stop removal proceedings if deemed appropriate.