Tens of thousands of children unaccompanied by parents or relatives are flooding across the southern U.S. border illegally, forcing the Obama administration and Congress to grapple with both a humanitarian crisis and a budget dilemma.
An estimated 60,000 such children will pour into the United States this year, according to the administration, up from about 6,000 in 2011. Now, Washington is trying to figure out how to pay for their food, housing and transportation once they are taken into custody.
The flow is expected to grow. The number of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrants who are under 18 will likely double in 2015 to nearly 130,000 and cost U.S. taxpayers $2 billion, up from $868 million this year, according to administration estimates.
The shortage of housing for these children, some as young as 3, has already become so acute that an emergency shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, has been opened and can accommodate 1,000 of them, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in an interview with Reuters.
The issue is an added source of tension between Democrats and Republicans, who disagree on how to rewrite immigration laws. With comprehensive legislation stalled, PresidentBarack Obama is looking at small, administrative steps he could take, which might be announced this summer. No details have been outlined but immigration groups are pressing him to take steps to keep families with children together.
The minors flooding over the border are often teenagers leaving behind poverty or violence in Mexico and other parts of Central America such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They are sometimes seeking to reunite with a parent who is already in the United States, also without documentation.
“This is a humanitarian crisis and it requires a humanitarian response,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said in an interview. The Maryland Democrat, a former social worker, has likened the flood of unaccompanied children to the “boat people” of past exodus movements.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on Mikulski’s committee, said, “The need is there, you know the humanitarian aspect of it, but we’re challenged on money.”
Immigration groups lobbying for comprehensive reform argue that children are being hit hardest by the political deadlock.