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Agencies scrambling to care for unaccompanied minor migrants
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — As the federal government struggles to care for an unexpected influx of children caught trying to cross the border without a parent or guardian, dioceses and social service agencies where the minors are passing through are trying to provide assistance.

A surge in such children being detained at the border -- more than 48,000 since October, double the number apprehended in all of the 2012 fiscal year -- has caught governmental and private agencies short of the resources needed to care for the children, explained participants in a June 10 teleconference. As recently as 2011, the annual number of unaccompanied minors was 6,000 or 7,000 a year.

President Barack Obama June 2 designated the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deal with the surge as "an urgent humanitarian situation." The vast majority of the unaccompanied children are from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where crime and threats by drug cartels and gangs are rampant.

The flood of youngsters has led to them being shipped across several states to temporary shelters set up in warehouses or other settings while the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care through its Office of Refugee Resettlement, makes longer-term arrangements. That can include turning the children over to the custody of parents or other relatives in the United States while the government pursues deportation.

Valleycentral.com, a Brownsville, Texas-area news outlet, reported June 13 that two Catholic parishes in the Rio Grande Valley would be gathering food, clothing, baby supplies and toiletries to offer the young migrants. The Rio Grande Valley has seen the bulk of the influx of children who cross the border without their parents.

Several Tucson, Arizona, news outlets quoted Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas discussing meetings he was in with community leaders and municipal and federal authorities about how to deal with the thousands of migrants being moved to Arizona to make room for the continuing influx in Texas.

Tucson and Phoenix were receiving busloads of women and children from Texas daily, he said. Families with few belongings and no food or money are dropped off at bus stations with instructions to show up for future deportation-related hearings.

South of Tucson, in the border city of Nogales, unaccompanied minors were literally being warehoused, sheltered in a Border Patrol warehouse with no indoor plumbing while more permanent housing is arranged. Bishop Kicanas said the Tucson community groups were discussing opening a shelter for the children.

In the June 10 teleconference, Erica Dahl-Bredine, country representative for El Salvador for Catholic Relief Services, said the surge "is a direct result of the growing desperation we are seeing here in Central America."

She noted that the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime reported that Honduras and El Salvador were among the five most violent countries in the world. "In huge areas of the capital cities and many rural areas, the  gangs are calling the shots," Dahl-Bredine said. "There are far more gang members than police officers in El Salvador and Honduras."

She told of the 15-year-old son of the person who cleans her office being taken off the bus by gang members on his way home from school and severely beaten.

"His crime was simply being from a neighborhood controlled by the rival gang," she said. "If he ever rode the bus through there again, he was told, they would kill him."

There's been some anecdotal reporting that people in Central America are sending their kids north in the hope of them getting legal status, because of an administration program giving some young adults protection from deportation. But Leslie E. Velez, senior protection officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in the teleconference that interviews show there's more to it than that.

Last year the UNHCR did lengthy interviews with more than 400 minor migrants, asking them about why they left home and what their experiences were on the way, she said.

Almost 60 percent said they were fleeing chronic violence at home, "in many cases, fleeing for their lives," Velez said.

"One 15-year-old girl explained it to us, to break it down," she said. In El Salvador, the girl said, the gang members take young girls and rape them. If they don't agree to become the "girlfriends" of gang members, "they put you in a plastic bag," Velez said the girl explained.

The panelists at the teleconference, organized by the Center for American Progress, said that about half the children -- whose average age is 14 -- are girls, where in years past nearly all were boys. Many of the girls are pregnant, from being raped either at home or on the way to the U.S., said Michelle Brane, director, of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program of the Women's Refugee Commission.

"They are well aware of how dangerous it is, and that they might die," she said. One young migrant told her agency that she "had to take the chance. If she stayed home she was certain to die."

Dahl-Bredine, who formerly worked for CRS in its Mexico programs office in Nogales, Arizona, said most Central Americans are well aware how dangerous the trip is.

"Almost everyone knows someone who has made the trip," she said. "They know about the so called 'death train' through Mexico, the routine assaults and kidnappings of migrants, the rape statistics among women and girls in transit, the harrowing journey through the desert.

"But as a grandmother I met recently at a government repatriation center said when I asked why she let her 12- and 14-year-old grandsons attempt the journey, 'I am terrified to take them home. The gang just won't let them be.'"

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