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Texas Air Base Houses Minors Crossing Solo Into U.S.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. The number of children crossing the U.S. border on their own is soaring. Just since October, the U.S. found some 80,000 unaccompanied minors crossing over from Mexico. Those are just the kids who were caught. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio introduction to this story, as did a previous Web introduction, mistakenly says that 80,000 unaccompanied minors had crossed from Mexico into the United States just since October. While the flow of minors into the U.S. has risen sharply, that figure is too high. U.S. border authorities expect there will be about 60,000 unaccompanied minors who cross the border this year]

INSKEEP: Travel to the U.S.-Mexico border and you see signs of children who've crossed. As we reported for the NPR series Borderland, we stopped at a border wall near the Rio Grande. A Texas resident showed us items on the ground like toothbrushes and toys.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, that would indicate that somebody had to empty their pockets before being loaded up into a van and taken off to a detention center somewhere.

INSKEEP: What is this?

MAN: Looks like somebody's shirt.

INSKEEP: Lovely shade of blue. Oh, it's a small child's shirt.

The shirt was torn, maybe my 4-year-old could have worn it.

That was earlier this year. Now just after that discovery, border patrol agents emerged from the woods having arrested a group of people, including many children.

GREENE: This morning we will track where some of the kids crossing the border go next. Reporter Eileen Pace went to a children's facility in San Antonio.

BETH GREEN: Hola, Como estas?

EILEEN PACE, BYLINE: A loosely organized line of 10 to 15 boys is accompanied by two adults whose hands some of the boys reach out to hold. The adults smile with pleasant instructions to the children to lavenses las manos. Most of these boys appear to be around 8 or 9 years old. And if they were scared crossing the border, they don't seem afraid now. They cheerfully shout, hola, as they pass us in the hallway at St. PJ's Children's Home in San Antonio.

GREEN: I'm practicing my Spanish. I say hola. They say hello. So we're teaching each other, and they're just really sweet kids.

PACE: Beth Green is the development director at Saint PJ's, named for St. Peter and St. Joseph. Of it's 140 beds, the home now provides 82 beds for unaccompanied alien children, a flip-flop of its 100-year mission of caring for local kids.

GREEN: We're just seeing unprecedented numbers of children coming across without any kind of parents coming across or guardians coming across with them.

PACE: In the last year, Saint PJ's alone has served more than 600 unaccompanied minors. Most of these children's stories begin in their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala where they faced so much violence and poverty that often their only choice seems to be escape to the North. U.S. officials are calling it the surge.

The Department of Homeland Security has seen a dramatic increase of unaccompanied minors just in the last few weeks, so much so that the agency turned to the Pentagon for help. Kenneth Wolfe is a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

KENNETH WOLFE: The Department of Defense, at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is providing a temporary housing facility at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

PACE: The Lackland shelter is a military barracks for basic trainees - three stories of large dorm rooms with showers, kitchens and dining facilities and a large outdoor area. The DOD started transporting children to the base a little over two weeks ago. Officials rushed to try to locate family members in this country. Wolfe says more kids are arriving daily.

WOLFE: Reasons for the surge - several reasons contribute to the dramatic increase in children crossing alone, including poor economic conditions, increased and sustained violence in their home countries, in addition to the desire to be reunited with their families in the United States.

PACE: According to Homeland Security, apprehensions of unaccompanied alien children doubled each of the past three years but has already jumped dramatically this year. In 2012, 13,000 unaccompanied minors came through the federal system. This year 60,000 are expected.

JENNIFER PODKUL: The stories are really horrific.

PACE: Senior program officer at the Women's Refugee Commission, Jennifer Podkul, toured the emergency shelters set up at Lackland during the first surge two years ago. She says most of the children there were older, probably in their late teens.

PODKUL: I spoke to a girl who said she opened her front door one day and there were pieces of a body, you know, thrown in a plastic bag on her doorstep as a warning from the gangs that they have to comply with all of the, you know, requirements that the gangs are asking.

PACE: Local agencies that deal with these kids say they're overwhelmed. In McAllen, when a child is picked up, the U.S. Border Patrol moves them to the front of the line for processing. But most detention facilities don't have accommodations for children, just concrete benches and some blankets. Border Patrol agent Chris Cabrera says facilities all along the Texas border are filled to overflowing.

CHRIS CABRERA: You know, we'll put the juveniles in a cell together, and they'll figure out who gets the bench, usually the smaller kids or the girls will get up on the benches. And the boys, they're pretty chivalrous so they'll sleep on the floor.

PACE: The Department of Homeland Security in a statement said the situation of so many unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. is an example of a broken immigration system and that the tools at the department's disposal are limited. Back in San Antonio, Beth Green says St. PJ's has started a bilingual foster care program and will continue to provide a place where kids can feel safe until a family member or a foster home can be found.

GREEN: What we do is, we do what we do best. We take care of that child. We bring them in. We take them to a doctor. If they need to get vaccinations, we're getting vaccinations. We give them clothes. We make sure that they're fed. We give them educational opportunities, and we play. We play a lot of soccer.

PACE: For NPR News, I'm Eileen Pace in San Antonio.

GREENE: All right, that gives you some idea of this growing problem. We'll have more on the program tomorrow about unaccompanied minors coming across the border from Mexico. It's happening in alarming numbers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 3, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
The audio introduction to this story, as did a previous Web introduction, mistakenly says that 80,000 unaccompanied minors had crossed from Mexico into the United States just since October. While the flow of minors into the U.S. has risen sharply, that figure is too high. U.S. border authorities expect there will be about 60,000 unaccompanied minors who cross the border this year.
Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.