An influx of unaccompanied Central American minors crossing the U.S. border illegally is an “urgent humanitarian situation,” that is overwhelming the federal government, White House officials said Monday.
Two factors contributing to the urgency of the situation are the increase in girls apprehended at the border and the spike in children under 13 years old found crossing alone, said Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of domestic policy.
“This is creating an urgent humanitarian situation which the federal government is moving very swiftly to address,” Muñoz said.
Hundreds of young Central American migrants were flown to Arizona Monday from Texas because the most minors are being apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley and federal agents need assistance from other states. Last week some immigration officials from Arizona were temporarily assigned to work in Texas.
Officials in the Obama administration held a press call Monday to ddress the issue and begin steps to make sure the youth are cared for as required by federal law.
President Barack Obama directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to form a multi-agency group headed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and approach this as a humanitarian issue more than a border security issue.
“The truth is these kids are innocent, they don’t truly understand what’s going on,” said Jose Joaquin Chacón, consul for El Salvador in Tucson. “I talked to them and they are just hopeful that they are going to a place where they can be united with their parents again."
Many of the minors are migrating because of a lack of economic opportunities in their home countries, an increase in violence and a desire to reunite with family members in the United States, Muñoz said.
Chacón said many parents who are already in the U.S. are arranging for their kids to make the trek north after gang members in Central American countries threaten to hurt the children if parents don’t wire money.
“The situation is tremendous and people are desperate,” he said.
In the last week dozens of women with young children were flown from Texas to Arizona and dropped off at the Greyhound Bus station in Tucson. Human rights activists criticized the government’s decision to leave the migrants – many without money to buy a bus ticket or food – at a bus station that could not handle the demand.
“This has created challenges for the Department of Homeland Security and Heath and Human Services,” Muñoz said.
Gov. Jan Brewer wrote a letter to Obama Monday expressing concern about the release of migrants at Greyhound stations in Tucson and Phoenix.
Department of Homeland Security did not notify her office of the dropoffs, Brewer said, and it was disturbing to have women, children and unaccompanied juveniles “abandoned at bus stations” without water in 100-degree weather.
“I urge you to end this dangerous and unconscionable policy immediately and instead take actions to fulfill the federal government’s fundamental responsibility of protecting our homeland by securing our nation’s borders,” Brewer wrote in the letter.
Homeland Security officials said last week the agency is advertising in Mexico and Central America to warn people of the dangers of crossing the border illegally, hoping to keep more youth from heading north.
After the young migrants are apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection - the agency overseeing Border Patrol and customs officers - the Department of Health and Human Services takes custody of the children.
The White House wants to address the basic needs and safety of those children by pulling in resources from multiple federal agencies, officials said Monday.