SAN ANTONIO (AP) — After a spike in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in the past two months, a top health official has voiced renewed concern that too little money will be available to house the children, risking another border crisis, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
In the letter, Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of Health and Human Services, tells members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Appropriations Committee that even with increased contingency funding requested by the president, the agency still faces a shortage that could lead to "the situation we faced in (2014) when children were left at the border for unacceptable periods of time."
Agency spokesman Mark Weber said the secretary is communicating with members of Congress to take all necessary steps to "make sure that we're prepared" and that the letter doesn't demand funds beyond the president's budget request. Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Stephen Worley said items are still being reviewed, and it's not possible to say what will be included in the final budget.
The administration is hoping to avoid a repeat of the crisis it saw in the summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of children and families poured over the border. Border Patrol holding areas became overcrowded, with children sleeping on concrete floors covered by aluminum foil-like blankets. The surge in children arriving without parents overwhelmed the U.S. government and the White House labeled it "a humanitarian crisis."
A total of 10,588 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in October and November, compared with 5,129 who crossed during the same two months last year, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. The uptick has already prompted the agency to open two shelters in Texas and one in California.
Burwell says in her letter that "it is impossible to know whether these trends will continue."
Border crossings have not reached the levels of summer 2014, when more than 10,000 children arrived in the United States that June alone.
By law, unaccompanied child migrants from countries that don't border the United States must be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of being detained. The government is responsible for caring for the children until they are united with a relative or sponsor in the U.S. and immigration courts can rule on their cases.
Not only has the number of unaccompanied minors doubled, but the number of family members crossing together has nearly tripled from the same time last year, to 12,505 during the past two months. Adult male immigrants are usually sent to detention centers, and families, the majority women with children, are usually sent to detention centers, though detention times have become shorter since a federal judge's ruling that children can only be kept in these facilities for a matter of weeks at most.
Experts say increasing gang violence in Central America is pushing people to flee. El Salvador has seen its homicide rate skyrocket to levels not seen since the country's civil war, and violence plagues Honduras and Guatemala. The increase in migration is worrisome, they say, because it comes when the cold usually keeps people away.
Though Mexico has cracked down on migrants within its borders and returned a large number to their home countries, experts say smugglers are finding new ways around checkpoints and have established new networks of bribes that allow them to get migrants to the U.S. border.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report