President 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 W. 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.
Obama announced the response in a memo released Monday.
“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.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House domestic policy council, also said there are rumors and suggestions that the increase may be in response to false gossip that children are allowed to stay in the United States despite immigration law or that immigration reform may benefit minors. Muñoz said the United States is working closely with the governments of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador to distribute public service announcements.
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, Calif., 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.
Obama’s announcement comes after White House budget officials informed lawmakers Friday that the projected cost of caring for and resettling young migrants from Mexico and Central America could top $2.28 billion in fiscal 2015 — more than double what the Office of Management and Budget requested for 2015 a few months ago.
The issue of apprehending, temporarily housing and then resettling the children is expected to be one of the most complex and politically charged elements of House and Senate negotiations over how to fund the government, said aides familiar with the process. The House and the Senate have been moving to approve 12 bills that set spending levels for federal agencies in hopes of completing the appropriations process by Oct. 1.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) called the influx of unaccompanied children “an administration-made disaster.”
“Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally,” Goodlatte said in a statement. He added that “enforcement at the border and in the interior of the U.S.” and “not another bureaucratic task force” would better solve the influx of children.