The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Air Force turned a San Antonio Air Force base into temporary shelter for 100 undocumented children Monday, after being overwhelmed by unusually high rates of underage border-crossers, according to a report by the San Antonio Express-News.
Although the number of migrants attempting to cross the border illegally has plummeted in the past five years, the number of children entering the country illegally without guardians has steadily risen in recent years and months, according to the Unaccompanied Children's Services division of HHS. This spike has prompted temporary fixes like the base shelter, and has strained already-limited resources for the federal agencies and legal advocates who represent undocumented children.
Nationally, immigration remains a heated topic. On Sunday, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for a Dream Act-style bill to allow some undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children to become citizens, though he pledged in January to veto the current Dream Act -- a measure supported by 91 percent of Latinos.
In the past three years, HHS estimates that it has taken in around 8,000 such children. But since October, the agency has housed more than 4,000, a 77 percent hike from the first quarter of last year, according to a report by The Associated Press. According to HHS, the agency currently has more than 2,100 undocumented children in their custody.
Though the recent rise in undocumented children is as of yet unaccounted for, advocates at Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), an organization which provides pro-bono legal representation to unaccompanied minors, told The Huffington Post that many children who come to the United States alone do so to escape domestic abuse, political turmoil and human trafficking.
"Kids don’t just travel across international borders unless there is something wrong with their life," Wendy Young, the president of KIND, told The Huffington Post.
Two-thirds of the minors that started trickling into San Antonio's Lackland Air Force Base on Monday are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, while 12 percent are from Mexico. About 80 percent of the minors are male, and 83 percent are older than 14, according to an AP report -- though the Women's Refugee Commission has found that 14 is the average age of an unaccompanied child in immigration custody.
The San Antonio Express-News reported that the 100 children will stay in an empty 1,000-student dorm, equipped with showers and a dining hall, until the government figures out what to do with each of them. According to the AP, HHS will eventually distribute the 100 children among 13 states, where they will "receive government-provided housing, health care and psychiatric treatment" and await trial.
An unaccompanied minor in HHS custody faces a hearing in which an immigration judge decides if he or she will be sent back home, reunited with a legal guardian in the United States or granted asylum. Nine out of 10 are reunited with a family member, the AP reports.
Yet, under current U.S. law, unaccompanied children are not guaranteed lawyers in deportation and asylum cases. While pro-bono lawyers have done their best to fill this void, in 2011, nearly half of all such children went in front of a judge without any form of representation, according to Elaine Komis, a spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review in the Department of Justice.
According to Young, the president of KIND, a child with representation is three times more likely to be granted asylum than a child without.
Jennifer Podkul, who has represented nearly 200 unaccompanied minors in her five years serving a pro-bono lawyer, told The Huffington Post that she and her colleagues are overwhelmed.
"We can't move quickly enough from one case to the next," she said. "We just can't keep up."
Judge Bruce Einhorn, a retired U.S. immigration judge who oversaw children's immigration cases for nearly two decades, told The Huffington Post that without lawyers, minors are often left without any representation at all, unable to adequately argue their own case.
"It’s like dealing with someone in a boat in the middle of a lake with no guide and no oars," Einhorn said. "It’s much easier for a child to have someone in the boat with them rowing."