U.S. grappling with surge of unaccompanied immigrant children

Federal officials are scrambling to care for a surge of immigrant children who are illegally entering the U.S. on their own and heading to Georgia and other states.

On Sunday, the government opened a temporary shelter for up to 1,000 of them at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. And The U.S. Homeland Security Department has announced a “Level IV” state of readiness — its highest level of contingency planning — and is standing more staff to Texas.

The influx is largely concentrated along the South Texas border. Most of the children apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley are coming from countries other than Mexico, primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are fleeing poverty and drug violence and seeking to reunite with their relatives in the U.S.

So far this fiscal year, the government has identified more than 29,000 unaccompanied immigrant children in the U.S., up from 24,668 the year before and 13,625 the year before that. The government is projecting 60,000 this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

The government doesn’t keep state-by-state statistics, so it is unknown how many are ending up in Georgia. But local immigration attorneys say they have noticed a substantial increase in Georgia since last year. There were an estimated 400,000 immigrants of all ages living without legal status in Georgia in January 2012, according to a Homeland Security Department report released this year.

“These children are regularly exposed to extreme danger and criminal abuse along the long migration journey,” the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said in a prepared statement this week. “However, because children are subject to the risk of violence at home as well — including the rise in gangs and domestic violence in sending countries — for many it is still worth the risk to try to migrate.”