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Humanitarian Crisis on the Border

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Read the article with footnotes and additional content online or download the PDF

What is happening?

This past summer saw a dramatic increase in the number of undocumented unaccompanied children and immigrant children of single mothers entering the United States from Central America. Between October 2013 and July 2014, over 57,000 unaccompanied children entered the United States: double number of unaccompanied children who entered the United States in 2013. Of those that entered in fiscal year 2014, about two thirds were found in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The rate of unaccompanied minors entering the country dropped significantly in September, from nearly 300 a day to about 150. The influx of unaccompanied children put a strain on the increasing number of single mothers with children that entered the US.

Who are the unaccomapnied children and the immigrant children of single mothers,and why are they coming to the United States?

Of the unaccompanied children, more than 75 percent are coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador--the “Northern Triangle” of Central America. The number of family units from these countries migrating to the US has increased by roughly the same proportion. The reasons are complex, but the United Nations and human rights organizations report that there has been an increase of violence in these countries over the past several years. Other countries in the region, such as Mexico, Nicaragua, and Belize, have seen a more than 700 percent increase in unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle.

The violence is both gang-related and state sanctioned.  In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, many local police and government officials are deeply involved in organized crime and violence associated with it. This hostile environment is stacked against those seeking justice and is especially dangerous for children who are targeted by gangs for recruitment and trafficking. Jobs outside of agriculture and the drug trade are slim, and more than half of the population of these countries lives in poverty.

Where are they now?

Initially, children were being placed in temporary facilities at military bases in Texas, California, and Oklahoma. At the end of July, these shelters stopped accepting new residents and focused on finding permanent housing for the children already there by the end of August.  Under U.S. law, immigrant children in the U.S. with neither permission nor adult guardians must be “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”  The Office of Refugee Resettlement has made information available on where these children are going by county.

  • 85 percent of children under the care of the ORR are released to family or family friends in the United States during their immigration proceedings. The ORR is responsible for making sure that these living conditions meet certain standards.
  • Of the children who are reunified with their families or family friends, about 15 percent stay in Texas
  • Children who are not reunified are placed in shelters run by nonprofits.
  • Previously, children spent an average of two to three years in immigration proceedings while in ORR care. Recently, however, children have been expedited through the court system. You can read more about expedited deportation here.

While awaiting trial, many of the family units have been placed in detention, particularly in the Karnes City Detention Center. A limited number are released on bond while going through the legal process, although they do not qualify for social services or for work permits.

How many will stay in the United States?

Even when an unaccompanied minor is reunified with a U.S. based family member, they still have to go through immigration proceedings. There are a few cases in which undocumented children and families can stay in the U.S.:

  • Migrants with reasonable fear of persecution or torture in their home country, they can be granted asylum.
  • If a child fled abandonment, neglect, or abuse in their home country, they can get Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) Status.
  • Victims of human trafficking are eligible for T visas

Those who are not granted asylum, SIJ status, or a T visa cannot stay in the country. They must report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. While the United Nations estimates that 60 percent of unaccompanied minors in the United States qualify for international protection, only about 1 percent receive it. You can read more about protective status here.

What are federal government agencies doing?

The president has asked FEMA to coordinate with immigration agencies to deal with this humanitarian crisis. The United States will also be increasing its aid to Central America by about $300 million to help combat the poverty and violence that motivate migration. The State Department is disseminating information throughout Central America to discourage children from coming to the U.S.

What are Texas governmental agencies doing?

Texas’ Department of Public Safety is reallocating $1.3 million a week from other areas of its budget to border security; Attorney General Greg Abbott has requested $30 million from the federal Department of Homeland Security to cover costs associated with the influx of children. In September, Governor Rick Perry sent Texas National Guard troops to the Texas/Mexico border to assist the Border Patrol. During the Texas legislative session, the Texas Interfaith Center will provide updates on bills, hearings, and new legislation regarding unaccompanied minors, immigration, and border security.

What faith groups are saying and doing


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Additional Resources

  1. To learn more about this issue, read "A Child Alone and Without Papers: A report on the return and repatriation of unaccompanied undocumented children by the United States" by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
  2. VIDEO: Bishop Mark J. Seitz, Roman Catholic Bishop of El Paso, testifies before the US House Judiciary Committee on unaccompanied children, June 25, 2014. Bishop Seitz testifies on behalf of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Read Bishop Seitz' full testimony here.
  3. VIDEO: Bishop Jim Dorff, of the San Antonio Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church visited Laredo, Texas to better determine what is needed to best support this critical humanitarian effort.
  4. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle writes Border Crisis is a Test of Texans' Faith for TribTalk.
  5. View Texas Tribune Interactive: Federal Children's Shelters in Texas.
  6. Vera Institute report: The Flow of Unaccompanied Children Through the Immigration System: A Resourse for Practitioners, Policy Makers, and Researchers by Olga Byrne and Elise Miller http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/the-flow-of-unaccompanied-children-through-the-immigration-system.pdf
  7. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report: Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection http://www.unhcrwashington.org/sites/default/files/1_UAC_Children%20on%20the%20Run_Full%20Report.pdf
  8. Congressional Research Service report (2007): Unaccompanied Alien Children: Policies and Issues by Chad C. Haddal http://www.rcusa.org/uploads/pdfs/CRS%20UAC%20Report%202007.pdf
  9. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s testimony at Homeland Security hearing titled, ‘Dangerous Passage: The Growing Problem of Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border.’: http://www.dhs.gov/news/2014/06/24/written-testimony-dhs-secretary-jeh-johnson-house-committee-homeland-security

Annotated Article


Photo "Looking North" by Nathan Gibbs Licensed Under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

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