President Barack Obama described a surge in unaccompanied immigrant children caught trying to cross the Mexican border as an "urgent humanitarian situation," as the White House asked Congress for an extra $1.4 billion in federal money to cope with what is expected to be more than 60,000 children this year.
Obama described the growing issue at the border in a presidential memorandum Monday that outlined a government-wide response that will be lead by Federal Emergency Management Agency chief, Craig Fugate.
In its new estimates, the government said as many as 60,000 children, mostly from Central America, will be caught this year trying to cross the Mexican border illegally, costing the U.S. more than $2.28 billion to house, feed and transport the children to shelters or reunite them with relatives already living in the United States.
The new estimate of cost is about $1.4 billion more than the government asked for in Obama's budget request sent to Congress earlier this year.
Obama's director of domestic policy, Cecilia Munoz, said the number of children traveling alone has been on the rise since 2009. In the last eight months alone, 47,000 children have been apprehended just at the Southwest Border.
Munoz said the group also now includes more girls and larger numbers of children younger than 13.
"All of these things are contributing to the sense of urgency," Munoz said. "These are children who have gone through a harrowing experience alone. We're providing for their proper care."
The growth has surpassed the system's capacity to process and house the children, who are another element in the debate over immigration.
Last month, the federal government opened an emergency operations center at a border headquarters in South Texas to help coordinate the efforts and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Health and Human Services Department, turned to the Defense Department for the second time since 2012 to help house children in barracks at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio.
Mark Greenberg, an assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Department, said about 1,000 children were being housed at the Texas base and as many as 600 others could soon be housed at a U.S. Navy base in Southern California.
Between 2008 and 2011, the number of children landing in the custody of Refugee Resettlement fluctuated between 6,000 and 7,500 per year. In 2012, border agents apprehended 13,625 unaccompanied children and that number surged even more — to over 24,000 — last year.
More than 90 percent of those sheltered by the government are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, many driven north by pervasive violence and poverty in their home countries. They are held in agency-contracted shelters while a search is conducted for family, a sponsor or a foster parent who can care for them through their immigration court hearings, where many will apply for asylum or other special protective status. Border Patrol agents have said that smugglers are increasingly notifying authorities once they get children across the Rio Grande so that they can be picked up.
The Associated Press