WASHINGTON — The flood of migrant children trying to cross the Mexican border alone has become an "urgent humanitarian situation" that is likely to cost the government more than $1 billion more than the Obama administration thought.
Late last week, the Obama administration asked Congress for $1.4 billion in extra funding to help house, feed and transport the tens of thousands of children being caught trying to cross the border illegally, and turned to the Defense Department to help temporarily house more than 1,000 of the children.
In a presidential memorandum issued Monday, President Barack Obama described the situation in stark terms and appointed the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, to lead the government's response.
In the past eight months alone, 47,000 children have been apprehended at the southwest border.
Children trying to cross the border alone are not a new phenomenon, and the numbers have been on the rise since 2009. But Obama's director of domestic policy, Cecilia Munoz, said the increase in 2014 is larger than last year and the group also now includes more girls and larger numbers of children younger than 13. The increase appears to have caught the administration by surprise, despite growing increases over the past few years.
"All of these things are contributing to the sense of urgency," Munoz said. "These are children who have gone through a harrowing experience alone. We're providing for their proper care."
The government estimates that as many as 60,000 children, mostly from Central America, could be caught at the border this year. That would be a nearly 10-fold increase since 2011.
Between 2008 and 2011, the number of children landing in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement fluctuated between 6,000 and 7,500 a year. In 2012 border agents apprehended 13,625 unaccompanied children, and that number surged even more — to over 24,000 — last year.
Rampant crime and poverty across Central America and a desire to reunite with parents or other relatives is thought to be driving many of the young immigrants. Migrant kids remain in removal proceedings even after they're reunited with their parents here, though many have been able to win permission from an immigration judge to stay in the U.S.
The growth has surpassed the system's capacity to process and house the children, prompting the government to open an emergency operations center in South Texas to help coordinate the efforts of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Health and Human Services Department. It also turned to the Defense Department for the second time since 2012 to help house children in barracks at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio.
Mark Greenberg, an assistant HHS secretary, said Monday that about 1,000 children were being housed at the Texas base and as many as 600 others could soon be housed at a Navy base in Southern California.
If the latest estimates hold, the government could spend more than $2.28 billion to house, feed and transport the children to shelters or reunite them with relatives already living in the United States. The new estimate is about $1.4 billion more than the government asked for in Obama's budget request sent to Congress earlier this year.
Republican lawmakers suggested Monday that the flood of children at the border was the result of Obama's lax enforcement of immigration laws.
"The recent surge of children and teenagers from Central America showing up at our Southern border is an administration-made disaster," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen said in a scathing order related to migrant smuggling cases that the government was assisting in criminal conspiracies to smuggle children into the United States by reuniting them with parents or other relatives living in the country illegally.