WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of immigrant children fleeing poverty and violence in Central America to cross alone into the United States can live in American cities, attend public schools and possibly work here for years without consequences.
The chief reasons are an overburdened, deeply flawed system of immigration courts and a 2002 law intended to protect children's welfare, an Associated Press investigation finds.
Driving the dramatic increases in these immigrants is the recognition throughout Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that children who make the dangerous trip can effectively remain in the U.S. for years before facing even a moderate risk of deportation.
The Obama administration estimates it will catch 90,000 children trying to illegally cross the Mexican border without their parents by the end of the current budget year in September. Last year, the government returned fewer than 2,000 children to their native countries.
The administration has asked Congress for $2 billion to spend on the issue.
"They almost never go home," said Gary Mead, who until last year was director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office responsible for finding and removing immigrants living in the country. "It's not a process that ultimately ends in easy resolutions or clear-cut resolutions."
The situation is widely perceived as becoming a humanitarian crisis at the border. The system is now so overwhelmed that children are being housed in Border Patrol facilities ill-equipped to handle them.
The government has asked the military to open temporary shelters in Texas, Oklahoma and California.
U.S. officials, including the Homeland Security secretary, the White House domestic policy council director and the Customs and Border Protection commissioner have described immigrant families' concerns about education, jobs and personal safety as driving the rise in border crossings.
Only recently have officials acknowledged that perceptions that these children may be allowed to stay or that Congress soon may relax U.S. immigration laws — which is highly unlikely — may also be responsible.