By Julia Edwards and Alex Dobuzinskis
WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES, July 16 (Reuters) - The U.S. government is struggling to gain control over a chaotic border crisis and surge of Central American children trying to sneak into the country illegally from Mexico, some accompanied by parents and some traveling alone.
The Obama administration returned a planeload of women and children to Honduras on Monday in an effort to send a clear message to illegal migrants that they will not be allowed in. The influx has put a strain on the U.S. budget and intensified an emotional debate on whether to enact comprehensive immigration reform to cover 11 million undocumented people in the United States.
Here is a look at the scope of the problem and steps the White House is taking to address it:
BY THE NUMBERS
- More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since October 2013, twice as many as a year earlier. Thousands more have been detained with parents or other adults.
- Without government action, the Obama administration projects more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 could be fleeing their Central American homelands for the United States next year.
- While boys are most likely to make the journey, there has been a rise in the number of girls and very young children crossing the border alone.
- The U.S. Department of Health is scrambling to find temporary housing facilities for children; some state governors and municipalities have protested plans for facilities in their jurisdictions.
- Immigrant children are being held temporarily at three military bases: Joint Base San Antonio in Lackland, Texas; Naval Base Ventura County in California; and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. The facilities have a combined capacity of nearly 3,000 beds. The average stay is less than 35 days.
- Children are subsequently placed with a relative or sponsor and are instructed to go through immigration proceedings, during which they face a possible deportation order.
- To house mothers traveling with children, federal officials have opened a temporary detention center for 700 people in Artesia, New Mexico, at a federal law enforcement training center.
ACTIONS SO FAR
- U.S. immigration enforcement has begun deporting women and children on chartered flights back to their countries. The first flight carried 38 women and children from the facility in Artesia to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Honduran first lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez said another plane, this time carrying 80 families sent home on a U.S. charter flight, would arrive on Friday.
- To speed up deportations, the Justice Department is reassigning immigration judges to cases involving newly arrived minors and putting them ahead of nondetained adults without children.
- To discourage parents from sending children to the United States the State Department has launched an ad campaign in Central America and Mexico to try to dispel rumors that the children will able to stay.
- The State Department is working with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to understand the source of the problem as well as with Mexico to interrupt smuggling routes.
- President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to pay for temporary detention centers, increased border security and additional immigration court judges.
- The White House wants Congress to change a 2008 antitrafficking law requiring lengthy deportation proceedings for children arriving from countries that do not share a border with the United States. The change would allow for faster deportations, like those ordered for children from Mexico and Canada. The majority of Mexican children are turned back within a day of their arrival, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske.
- Both proposals have met opposition in Congress where some Republicans are reluctant to approve the additional funding and some Democrats oppose changing the 2008 law out of concern the migrants would not receive due process. (Reporting by Julia Edwards in Washington and Alex Dobuzinkis in Los Angeles; Editing by Caren Bohan and Tom Brown)