President Obama issued a presidential memo Monday calling the huge number of unaccompanied children crossing the border—primarily into Texas—an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The White House announced it will put the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of coordinating federal agencies to respond to the growing crisis.
Thousands of unaccompanied children—the majority between 7 and 18—are fleeing deteriorating security and economic conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are primarily arriving in the Rio Grande Valley—the shortest distance from Central America to the U.S. border. The number of children has been climbing since 2009 from an average of 8,000 a year to an estimated 60,000 or more children in 2014.
In a media conference call arranged by the White House, Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of domestic policy, said President Obama issued the memo to unify federal agencies and provide for a coordinated response. Muñoz acknowledged that the growing number of children crossing the border alone was not a new phenomenon, but the scale in the last few months caught the government off guard. “The number of children coming is much larger than we anticipated,” she said. “It’s a 90 percent increase from last year and we are seeing more girls and more children under the age of 13 compared to previous years.”
In response to the growing crisis, the Department of Defense opened the Lackland Air Force Base two weeks ago in San Antonio to house as many as 1,200 children. The government also plans to fly children to a naval base in Ventura County, California, which can serve as an emergency shelter for up to 600 children, said Mark Greenberg, assistant secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families, the agency primarily in charge of caring for the unaccompanied children. The nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services will care for the children at Lackland, Greenberg said.
Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, said the goal is that no child be in Border Patrol detention for more than 72 hours, when the law mandates that the child be transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a shelter that is appropriate for children. Currently, Border Patrol stations are at capacity or overflowing in South Texas with children in need of assistance. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is struggling with the overflow, Fugate said. “They are backing up in facilities that were never designed for children.”