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Flow of unaccompanied minors at border confuses officials

Combined News Services

U.S. officials are scrambling to manage and understand the mass influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America who have turned up at the southern U.S. border over the past few months.

The surge has overwhelmed detention facilities, forcing the Obama administration to take emergency measures to provide shelter, hire lawyers and locate sponsors to receive the children.

The number of such minors entering the United States has crept upward since 2011, and last fall it began to skyrocket. Since October, 47,000 have arrived; officials expect another 60,000 by the end of this year.

The new surge is partly seasonal; early summer is the easiest time to travel across the region. But it is mainly being driven by two other factors.

One is an epidemic of gang violence across El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that has put many children at risk.

The second is a perception, fueled by certain policies and by critics of the Obama administration, that the government is treating young undocumented immigrants with unprecedented leniency.

Thousands of parents like Lucy Cabrera, an undocumented Honduran immigrant who sells homemade tortillas in Washington, sense both an urgent need and a unique opportunity to be reunited with children they left behind years ago.

Driven by a mix of rumor, fact and political hyperbole, word has spread among undocumented Latinos that if their children reach the U.S. border alone, they will be allowed to go free.

The families' hopes are partly justified because officials have sped up processing the arrivals to relieve crowded shelters and release as many as possible to relatives or guardians.

Temporary facilities have been opened at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, in Ventura, Calif., and in Fort Sill, Okla., to deal with the overflow from South Texas, where 13 shelters are full.

Cabrera, who wired $6,000 to her adolescent son and daughter to pay guides in Guatemala and Mexico, said she has been contacted by federal authorities so her adolescent children can eventually be released from a detention facility in Arizona to her custody.

Social and legal aid agencies said they have helped hundreds of families petition to receive minors from border detention over the past year.

But the speculation that these minors simply will be set free is unfounded. All are subject to deportation.

Families whose children face deportation may simply hide them away, shuttling them among friends and relatives in different states.

But parents or guardians must supply immigration officials with detailed information about themselves to receive a child from government custody, making such evasion more difficult.

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