A punctured raft hangs in the water as migrants, including children, climb the banks of the Rio Grande in Penitas, Tex., on March 6 after being smuggled into the United States. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

They cross the border from Mexico in groups large and small, most of them teenagers, but some much younger, carrying the names and phone numbers of family members living in the United States. Home is hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Some make the journey with a smuggler or a friend, but others set out alone, traveling on buses, the tops of freight trains or even by foot.

Central American and Mexican children, tweens and teenagers traveling without parents are crossing the border in soaring numbers, once more creating a logistical and humanitarian emergency for the U.S. government.

Some are fleeing violence, poverty and gang recruitment in their hometowns, risking the dangerous trip north in hope of finding safety or maybe a job that will pay exponentially more than they could make at home. The U.S. government labels them “unaccompanied minors,” and the Biden administration is struggling to shelter and care for them.

The U.S. refugee office of the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 8,500 minors in its shelters this week. An additional 3,500 are stuck in Border Patrol stations waiting for beds to open up. Each day, an additional 500 or more arrive, a threefold increase since December, and nearly 700 arrived Wednesday, the latest figures show. If the climbing trend line continues, the Biden administration will take in record numbers of unaccompanied minors this month, an influx made more challenging by the coronavirus pandemic.

Unaccompanied minors in HHS custody by month

The number of unaccompanied minors in HHS custody dropped during the coronavirus pandemic but is now increasing to pre-pandemic levels.

15,000 minors in custody

Age 17

10,000

February

preliminary

Age 15-16

5,000

13-14

6-12

0-5

0

2018

2019

2020

2021

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

Unaccompanied minors in HHS custody by month

The number of unaccompanied minors in HHS custody dropped during the coronavirus pandemic but is now increasing to pre-pandemic levels.

15,000 minors in custody

Age 17

10,000

February

preliminary

Age 15-16

5,000

13-14

6-12

0-5

0

2018

2019

2020

2021

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

Unaccompanied minors in HHS custody by month

The number of unaccompanied minors in HHS custody dropped during the coronavirus pandemic but is now increasing to pre-pandemic levels.

15,000 minors in custody

Age 17

10,000

February

preliminary

Age 15-16

5,000

13-14

6-12

0-5

0

2018

2019

2020

2021

Note: Counts are from the last day of each month.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

By law, U.S. Customs and Border Protection must transfer the minors to HHS facilities within 72 hours, but the latest government data show they are spending 107 hours on average in bare-bones detention cells built for adults. To accommodate the growing numbers and meet social distancing guidelines, the administration opened a tent facility in Carrizo Springs, Tex., last month. The Biden administration is planning to open additional tent sites in the coming weeks and is looking at Moffett Field in California, Fort Lee in Virginia and other federal properties where it can set up temporary shelters.

Referrals to and discharges from HHS custody by week

Customs and Border Protection has been referring more unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services, and HHS has been unable to discharge minors to sponsors at the same pace, increasing the number in HHS custody.

300

200

100

0

100

200

300

Discharges from

HHS custody

Referrals to

HHS custody

Dec. 17, 2020

103

129

Feb. 18, 2021

149

337

Note: Numbers are weekly averages.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services data

reviewed by the Washington Post

Referrals to and discharges from HHS custody by week

Customs and Border Protection has been referring more unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services, and HHS has been unable to discharge minors to sponsors at the same pace, increasing the number in HHS custody.

300

200

100

0

100

200

300

Discharges from HHS custody

Referrals to HHS custody

Dec. 17, 2020

103

129

Feb. 18, 2021

149

337

Note: Numbers are weekly averages.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services data reviewed by the

Washington Post

Referrals to and discharges from HHS custody by week

Customs and Border Protection has been referring more unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services, and HHS has been unable to discharge minors to sponsors at the same pace, increasing the number in HHS custody.

300

200

100

0

100

200

300

Discharges from HHS custody

Referrals to HHS custody

103

129

Dec. 17, 2020

149

337

Feb. 18, 2021

Note: Numbers are weekly averages.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services data reviewed by the Washington Post

Referrals to and discharges from HHS custody by week

Customs and Border Protection has been referring more unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services, and HHS has been unable to discharge minors to sponsors at the same pace, increasing the number in HHS custody.

Feb. 18, 2021

337

300

Referrals to HHS custody

200

Dec. 17, 2020

129

100

0

103

100

149

Discharges from HHS custody

Note: Numbers are weekly averages.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services data reviewed by the Washington Post

Discharges from HHS custody

Referrals to HHS custody

337

300

200

149

100

0

Dec. 17,

2020

Feb. 18,

2021

The surge is similar to others that occurred in 2014, 2016 and 2019, but also potentially larger, because conditions in Central America and Mexico are more desperate as a result of the pandemic’s economic pain.

Teenage boys make up the largest group. HHS statistics show that 70 percent of unaccompanied minors are male, and that about 75 percent are ages 15 to 17. Teenagers making the journey are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and forced recruitment by gangs, smugglers and predators. Sexual assault is common. Among about 400 adult respondents to a Doctors Without Borders survey in 2017, 31 percent of women and 17 percent of men said they were sexually assaulted along the trip.

Most unaccompanied minors cross the border into the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Some try to evade capture after crossing, but most seek out U.S. border agents to begin the process of making a humanitarian claim.


A young man is apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at the U.S.-Mexico border near Mission, Tex., on Feb. 10. Nearly 100 migrants were apprehended in about an hour. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

There are also indications in recent weeks that some minors are traveling with a parent to the border and then splitting up. The Mexican government last month stopped taking back some families “expelled” by U.S. authorities under an emergency public health order, forcing CBP to release them into the United States. There are anecdotal reports that some parents with older children or teenagers are sending the minors across alone, then attempting to sneak across the border separately with the goal of reuniting later.

The difficult and anguished decision to send a child or teenager alone is not an irrational act. The odds of being deported are low. DHS statistics show that just 4.3 percent of the 290,000 minors who have crossed the border without a parent since 2014 have been returned to their countries. Of the rest, 52 percent had immigration cases pending. An additional 28 percent had been granted humanitarian protection by U.S. courts and 16 percent had been ordered to leave, but lacked a confirmed departure or deportation.

Country of origin for unaccompanied minors taken in at the U.S.-Mexico border

60,000

Honduras

40,000

El Salvador

Mexico

20,000

Guatemala

0

FY 2014

FY 2020

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Country of origin for unaccompanied minors taken in at the U.S.-Mexico border

60,000

Honduras

40,000

El Salvador

Mexico

20,000

Guatemala

0

FY 2014

FY 2020

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Country of origin for unaccompanied minors taken in at the U.S.-Mexico border

60,000

Honduras

40,000

El Salvador

Mexico

20,000

Guatemala

0

FY 2014

FY 2020

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The vast majority of the unaccompanied minors are from Mexico and Central America, but trends have shifted in recent years. In 2014, during the first major crisis, the number of minors crossing from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico was about even. During the 2019 surge, Guatemalans and Hondurans were by far the two largest national groups. Last year, unaccompanied minors from Mexico comprised about half of all those taken into CBP custody.

HHS oversees an extensive network of shelters for the minors. Some are specialized, providing care to youths with trauma, medical needs or behavioral problems. Another subset cares for teenage mothers who arrive with infants and young children.

It’s a system of bricks-and-mortar facilities that often struggle to cope with sudden changes in the volume of minors. More than 13,000 beds are available in the HHS network, but capacity was limited by pandemic distancing guidelines. Last week, the government eased those limits to return to full capacity, despite the health risk. HHS officials have told the White House that they need about 20,000 shelter beds to keep pace with the influx.


Sunlight shines through window coverings inside a bedroom at an influx care facility for unaccompanied immigrant children on Feb. 21 in Carrizo Springs, Tex. The facility has dormlike rooms with areas for eating, bathing, and even haircuts and laundry. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

The Biden administration’s rush to open “soft-sided” tent facilities as emergency shelters has angered some Democrats on Biden’s left flank. They liken the tent sites to jails or the chain-link enclosures inside a Border Patrol warehouse that were widely denounced as “cages” in 2018 when the Trump administration separated thousands of children from their parents in an attempt to deter family migration.

But the HHS shelters bear little resemblance to those detention cells. They are by no means the kind of “summer camp” environment some defenders claim, but they resemble a makeshift group home, with classrooms, games, movies and outdoor recreation spaces. Private child-care contractors and counselors — not armed federal agents — interact with the minors.

The temporary facilities are not licensed by state regulators, unlike the more permanent network of shelters HHS uses. Their costs are also steep, as the government pays about $750 daily per minor. HHS’s strategy is to use the temporary tent facilities for teenagers, opening up space in the more permanent shelter facilities for “tender age” children — those who are 12 and younger — who are about 13 percent of the current influx.

Monthly discharges of unaccompanied minors to individual sponsors

Minor released

to ...

Distant relative

or unrelated

adult

8,000

Immediate

relative

6,000

4,000

Parent or legal

guardian

2,000

0

2018

2019

2020

Jan. 2021

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

Monthly discharges of unaccompanied minors to individual sponsors

Minor released to ...

8,000

Distant relative or

unrelated adult

6,000

Immediate

relative

4,000

Parent or legal

guardian

2,000

0

2018

2019

2020

Jan. 2021

Source: Department of Health and Human Service

Monthly discharges of unaccompanied minors to individual sponsors

Minor released to ...

Distant relative or

unrelated adult

8,000 minors discharged

Immediate

relative

6,000

4,000

Parent or legal guardian

2,000

0

2018

2019

2020

Jan. 2021

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

Once a minor is in HHS custody, the agency must identify a sponsor eligible to take custody and vet that person. About 90 percent of the minors are released to relatives living in the United States, and in about half those instances, the relative is at least one of their parents. Often, these relatives are living in the United States illegally, and a lack of records can complicate the process.

Sponsor data collected by HHS shows the leading destinations are the Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles metro areas, which have large Central American communities. Florida and New York are also among the leading destinations, but the Washington, D.C., metro area appears to receive more unaccompanied minors per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Unaccompanied minors released to sponsors by state, per 100,000 residents

From October 2014 through December 2020, more than 250,000 minors were released to sponsors in the United States. In raw numbers, almost half went to sponsors in the largest states, but when adjusted for population Maryland, D.C. and Virginia were the top destinations.

Minors released per 100,000

AK

ME

100

250

2

7

0

WI

VT

NH

2

11

9

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

95

36

10

1

4

36

23

10

119

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

77

26

39

14

60

55

36

32

28

156

141

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

139

84

20

40

117

23

55

7

179

268

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

24

15

60

48

108

78

62

206

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

47

128

57

92

83

HI

TX

FL

2

112

121

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

Unaccompanied minors released to sponsors by state, per 100,000 residents

From October 2014 through December 2020, more than 250,000 minors were released to sponsors in the United States. In raw numbers, almost half went to sponsors in the largest states, but when adjusted for population Maryland, D.C. and Virginia were the top destinations.

Minors released per 100,000

AK

ME

2

7

100

250

0

WI

VT

NH

11

2

9

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

36

10

1

4

36

23

10

119

95

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

26

39

14

60

55

36

32

28

156

77

141

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

84

20

40

117

23

55

7

179

268

139

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

24

15

60

48

108

78

62

206

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

47

128

57

92

83

HI

TX

FL

2

112

121

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

Unaccompanied minors released to sponsors by state, per 100,000 residents

From October 2014 through December 2020, more than 250,000 minors were released to sponsors in the United States. In raw numbers, almost half went to sponsors in the largest states, but when adjusted for population Maryland, D.C. and Virginia were the top destinations.

MINORS released per 100,000

AK

ME

2

7

100

250

0

WI

VT

NH

11

2

9

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

36

10

1

4

36

23

10

119

95

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

26

39

14

60

55

36

32

28

156

77

141

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

84

20

40

117

23

55

7

179

268

139

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

24

15

60

48

108

78

62

206

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

47

128

57

92

83

HI

TX

FL

2

112

121

Source: Department of Health and Human Services

The latest statistics show the average length of time a minor spends in an HHS shelter is 30 to 40 days, and the government has been wary of speeding the process. In one 2014 incident, teenagers released by HHS ended up with traffickers who sent them to work at an Ohio egg farm. Lawmakers were furious, and HHS officials say their obligation is to err on the side of caution.

Biden officials have taken steps to place minors more quickly, offering to pay travel costs for minors whose parents cannot afford plane tickets. They are also working with advocacy groups to identify minors in northern Mexico who are preparing to cross, so that they can do so safely at a legal port of entry, instead of paying a smuggler to cross the Rio Grande.

“The Biden administration is rightly saying it’ll take time to reconstruct the system in a humane and appropriate way,” said Wendy Young, president of the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense, which is helping with the effort. “And they’re digging themselves out of a hole right now.”


A Texas State Trooper asks asylum-seeking migrants Edith and her son Harbin Ordonez, 4, to come out of hiding after the Honduran nationals crossed the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on a raft in Penitas, Tex., on March 9. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The data and methodology behind this article have been made available on GitHub.