LOS ANGELES : A massive wave of immigrant children flooding into the United States across Mexico’s border is posing a growing humanitarian crisis, and escalating into a political one.
More than 52,000 minors, the youngest only three or four years old, have been detained since October after crossing the border illegally, hoping that getting a foot on US soil will win them the right to stay.
The process of deporting a child who has arrived illegally and without any family members is long and complicated. So many take a chance on being allowed, eventually, to remain in the country.
Despite US President Barack Obama’s best efforts to persuade them not to try their luck, on the basis that they will eventually be thrown out, hundreds of children keep arriving daily across the Mexican border, most from Central American countries plagued by gang violence and poverty.
In Texas and Arizona, the epicenter of the crisis, detention centers and military bases are full up, a border guard source told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Children are piled up waiting for authorities to start the process of sending them back to their home countries, or at least to give them a better conditions until they do.
The American Red Cross told AFP it is providing blankets and basic hygiene kits to US authorities for detained children, who often arrive exhausted and famished after dangerous trips of thousands of kilometers from Central America.
According to Californian non-governmental organization (NGO) Hermandad Mexicana, Washington should have foreseen the current crisis “given the tide of children (without parents) who have arrived in the country in recent years.”
The US Department of Homeland Security “could have predicted the need for beds and resources to receive them,” said Nativo Lopez, an advisor with the group which is lobbying on behalf of the young migrants.
The flood of children crossing the border has accelerated in recent months, possibly in anticipation of the immigration reforms being pushed by Obama. They include notably plans to make it easier to become a US citizen, while beefing up the US-Mexico border.
But the reform bill is currently moving nowhere in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, prompting the US president to announce Monday that he would take executive action to respond to the crisis.
On the diplomatic front, Vice President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State John Kerry have met authorities from the Central American countries the youngsters fled.
Lopez meanwhile lamented that Obama “is trying to weaken the rules allowing for the expulsion of minors and is thereby depriving them of their rights,” when they “should be treated like refugees,” he said.
The children are living “in awful conditions. They don’t have beds,” added Domingo Gonzalo of the group Campana Fronteriza which operates from the Texas town of Brownsville, where there is a detention center.
The government is planning to open a second center in the vast US state to house another 1,000 migrants.
Rare pictures taken inside these centers show hundreds of children sleeping on the floor, covered only with isothermal (thermal) blankets.
US law states that they must be found a place within 72 hours of being detained. But the most common outcome is that family members living legally in the US offer to take care of them.
Otherwise they are placed in hostels, while the deportation process takes its course.
In the short term there doesn’t seem to be any genuine solution to the crisis. “These children’s arrival shows that the system is broken,” said the Hermandad Mexicana advisor.
“We are going to go from crisis to crisis until there is reform which allows them to be legalized en masse,” added Lopez.