More than 8,000 unaccompanied migrant youths – mostly from Central America -- have been taken into custody this year, double the number taken into custody at this time last year. NBC's Mark Potter reports.
By Mark Potter, NBC News correspondent
EDINBURG, Texas -- A cell phone call from a Spanish-speaking man who said he and others were locked in a house brought police to a dirt road on the outskirts of town. There they found three small homes used as "stash houses" to hide 117 illegal immigrants, including 10 children, who had just been smuggled across the Mexican border into the United States.
One of the homes had barred windows and a padlocked door. "Approximately 50 undocumented people were inside the residence," said Edinburg Police Chief Rolando Castañeda. "There was no running water, very minimal food; it was pretty tough for them."
Texas is responsible for regulating the care of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Department of Health and Human Services is concerned about the future of these children.
Of the 10 boys locked with the adults inside the house, officials said, nine were unaccompanied, meaning they were traveling without their parents or adult guardians.
"They were being treated like animals," said Castañeda. "There was a lot of desperation, there was a lot of fear in their eyes."
All the children were taken to a local hospital, apparently suffering from dehydration.
Child detentions double
Federal authorities said the number of children detained after illegally entering the United States is rising dramatically.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 8,327 unaccompanied minors were taken into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement from October 2011 to May 2012, after being picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs officials. That number is more than double the 4,016 unaccompanied migrant children detained during the same period last fiscal year.
"Why this is happening we're still trying to figure out. The kids are primarily coming from Central America, with Guatemala being the top sending country, El Salvador the second," said Wendy Young, the executive director of Kids In Need of Defense, a legal aid group.
With the flood of unaccompanied minors coming across the border, local law enforcement are most likely to be the first contact with these children.
Child advocates suggested many of these children, mostly teenage boys, are fleeing drug and gang violence in Central America. Another theory is that Central American and Mexican parents already living in the United States illegally, and who are afraid to return home and face the prospect of being caught by U.S. border officials, will often hire smugglers to bring their children to them, paying thousands of dollars per child.
"Children are typically not the ones making the decision to come to the United States. Either someone is forcing them to leave their country or somebody is sending them," said Young. "As soon as a child crosses the international border alone, that should be a red flag to us that the child is in need and to remember to treat these children as children first and immigrants second."
The U.S. Border Patrol reported that so far this fiscal year it has caught 15,590 unaccompanied immigrant minors, compared to 10,776 this time in 2011 and 13,267 this time in 2,010.
Typically, children from Mexico apprehended after crossing the border are quickly turned over to Mexican authorities for a hasty return to their country. Children from Central America are more likely to be taken into U.S. custody until their immigration status is determined and asylum claims can be adjudicated.
Shelters stretched thin
With the rapid rise in detentions of unaccompanied minors this year, federal authorities have had to scramble to find enough shelters to properly house them until relatives or guardians can be located to take custody. One decision making headlines recently was the use of barracks at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to temporarily house some 200 immigrant children.
Normally, U.S. Border Patrol agents would quickly hand over any unaccompanied children they catch to other authorities. But recently they've had to spend a lot more time and resources caring for the children while officials try to find bed space elsewhere.
Stephanie Goodman, of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said state officials received pleas for help this year from the U.S. government. "We got a call in late February this year saying, ‘Hey, there's an influx of children coming in and we may need your help in expanding capacity,’" she said. "In early March it was sort of a mad dash -- ‘Can you help us set up shelters in gymnasiums’ and things like that, because we have these kids sleeping in Border Patrol jail cells."
Child advocates worry that the rise in children held by the government will make it difficult to properly house all of them and to find enough volunteer attorneys to represent them before immigration judges.
"It is really important to find a lawyer for them who can take the time, hear their story, develop trust with the child, develop a level of comfort and help them sort out do they want to stay or do they want to go home," said Young. "The system is being stretched thin. We're in a crisis mode right now."
Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined requests from NBC News for on-camera interviews to discuss the issue. When asked why they wouldn’t talk on the record, spokespersons for both departments said they were not allowed to explain the reasons.
Customs and Border Protection issued a written statement saying that while overall Border Patrol apprehensions have decreased 53 percent in the last three years, the Department of Homeland Security, "has experienced an increase in UAC (unaccompanied alien children) apprehensions compared to the same period in FY 2011. This increase, however, is not inconsistent with historic migration trends and patterns, which are cyclical and vary month by month over a year."
A dangerous journey
Officials and advocates involved in the care of unaccompanied migrant children worry that the dramatically increased detention numbers mean that more children now are making the perilous trek from their home countries to the U.S. border.
"It's often a very harrowing trip, a very dangerous trip for these children, and it can turn into a very abusive situation," said Young. "We have a lot of girls who we work with who are victims of sexual violence, kids who've been robbed, kids who have been abused by (foreign) government authorities or others who just prey on them as they're on the move."
Mike Vickers, a South Texas rancher and veterinarian was surprised to find two girls, ages 10 and 13, walking with two teenaged boys through the brush and onto a busy highway.
Dr. Mike Vickers is a south Texas rancher who sees young children trying to cross into the U.S. through his property.
"They told me they were out of a group of 32 [illegal immigrants] and they got separated from that group," said Vickers. "There was dirt in their faces, you could tell they had been sleeping on the ground, sleeping in the dirt, sleeping in the brush and haggard. They were just absolutely spent."
Vickers called the local sheriff’s office and the U.S. Border Patrol and gave water to the children. "They probably didn't realize how close they were to being statistics and being dead," he said.
It's a subject with which Vickers is quite familiar. He has found numerous bodies of deceased illegal immigrants on his ranch, many of them victims of the extreme heat. Last week, he encountered a 16-year-old migrant boy wandering on his property who took him to see the body of a young woman who had recently died there. Her body was stretched out at the base of a tree.
Lorena Rodriguez, 13, spent six weeks traveling from El Salvador to the U.S. border with an older sister and smugglers. She now lives with family members in Boston, Ma.
A more fortunate child immigrant is 13-year-old Lorena Rodriguez, from El Salvador, who now lives with her adult sister and other family members in Boston after enduring a grueling six-week journey with another sister through Guatemala and Mexico. After being helped by smugglers to cross the Rio Grande in an inner-tube raft near Hidalgo, Texas, Lorena and her sister were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents and sent to shelters.
Attorney Carlos Maycotte, who has volunteered to represent Lorena and several other child immigrants, said the word "ordeal" doesn't adequately describe the discomforts and dangers involved in a trip with smugglers to the United States. "It is very difficult, it is very long. They're not getting to sleep, they’re being smuggled basically like cargo, hidden in the back of trailers. It's not an easy way to go."
With the statistics released by the federal government suggesting an increased number of unaccompanied children are making the perilous trip now, many officials and child advocates wonder if this is a temporary situation or if more long-term child-care solutions are required.
"You are still just putting the Band-Aid on the situation when you just expand the capacity for emergency shelter," said Goodman. "You are not really dealing with the issue of why are these children coming in, and is there a better way to handle it?"