Nearly three-quarters of the youths apprehended are male, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Immigrant advocates say they see more young children crossing, as well as more girls. Last year, 24% of the youths were under age 14.
While the phenomenon of unaccompanied minor immigrants has been going on for years, the surge over the past three years has been so rapid, that U.S. officials have been scrambling to find housing and medical care for the young immigrants. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has criticized the Obama administration for failing to immediately return them, a policy he says encourages more to cross.
"Aside from being part of an obvious humanitarian crisis, these unaccompanied illegal minors have left the federal government scrambling to triage the results of its failed border security and immigration policies," Perry said in a letter to the White House in 2012.
The number of unaccompanied young migrants nearly doubled in the last three years, overwhelming local shelters and filling local immigration courts.
"The current immigration system was designed for adults. It was never designed with children in mind," said Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights with offices in Chicago and Harlingen.
Officials initially opened a huge makeshift shelter at a San Antonio military base and more than tripled the number of shelter beds.
Now, the process calls for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to turn over unaccompanied youths within 72 hours to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in shelters while attempting to locate family or other sponsors with whom they can live while their immigration cases are being adjudicated. (Youths from Mexico are often returned to their home country immediately if they have no credible fear of persecution, are not trafficking risks, and are considered capable of making independent decisions, agency officials said.)
In most cases, officials say, youths are transferred out of shelters and into homes within about a month.
The agency screens all placements, conducting background checks and fingerprinting would-be guardians. It works with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to conduct home studies for about 10% of youths, those considered most at risk — for instance, a child who is disabled, or who has been abused or trafficked in the past. Such youths also receive some follow-up services, although the agencies involved would like to do more.
To speed placements, last year the Office of Refugee Resettlement stopped fingerprinting certain parents and legal guardians who had no documented safety risks and were not caring for at-risk children. An agency spokesperson said that they have hired additional staff and that the reduced screening only applies to a small subset of cases, and does not include children who raise concerns for case managers, federal field specialists, or third-party reviewers.
But some advocates complain that officials are placing youths in homes without adequate follow-up.
"It's not like they're a foster-care system where there's monitoring after the fact," said Kimi Jackson, project managing attorney at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, which represents many of the youth in immigration court.
Kennedy, the San Diego State researcher, has stayed in touch with several immigrant youths placed with family and sponsors. Two were unable to find English as a second language high school classes, dropped out of school and went to work. Another moved from her guardian's home to stay with her mother, a gang member.
"More follow-up would be good," Kennedy said. "Not just to ensure they're in a good setting, but to ensure they're getting services."