A report released this week by the Pew Hispanic Research Center finds that the number of undocumented immigrant minors being detained by immigration authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border has doubled in the past year.
According to the report, nearly 50,000 children have been caught trying to cross the border. Three-quarters of them come from Central America looking for parents or relatives here. A majority of the immigrants in the metro D.C. area hail from Central America, so the exodus of children is hitting that community hard, says Abel Nunez Executive Director of Washington's Central American Resource Center — CARECEN.
"Sometimes they leave without their parents knowing and they just show up," Nunez says.
Nunez says he gets daily visits from parents looking for children who didn't complete the journey from Honduras or El Salvador.
"We know they are coming younger and younger into the system we've heard as young as nine," Nunez says. Asked if the youngsters are traveling alone, Nunez emphatically answers "alone."
Nunez adds that many children are handed off to coyotes, the term for those who smuggle people across the border and become part of a large group of would-be border crossers, but no one in that group is a relative and many times the children must fend for themselves. It's a dangerous trip the hazards include exposure to desert conditions, lack of water and food, and physical abuse or sexual exploitation by adults or authorities says Nunez.
He says desperation is what is driving these children to risk the journey and says one reason many Central American children leave is because the caretaker their parents left them with can no longer do so.
"These young people, maybe their grandparent has passed away and so they are left by themselves," he says.
Others come to escape violence, explains Melissa Graves with Lutheran Social Services.
"These youths are boys who have been threatened by local drug cartels to join their gangs or their families will be killed. They're girls who have been forced into sex trafficking," Graves says.
Similar groups in Maryland and Virginia say their experience mirrors CARECEN's. The difficulty in finding relatives of children who are detained is compounded by geography. The detainees may be close to the border in Texas and relatives are in the metro D.C. area. Even more daunting is that the children in immigration custody may not have the identification papers most adults carry and may have little contact information about relatives living here. This makes finding their kin very difficult.
Immigration officials and activists admit that the detention centers are not geared to hold minors and a push is underway to get humanitarian agencies involved in getting the children into a safer environment until their immigration status is resolved. That job has begun at many local agencies as they come together to get these children released from immigration custody and reunited with their families or foster families.