1228 130 4 LINKEDIN 139 COMMENTMORE

SAN ANTONIO — Taxpayers are footing the bill for relocating what could be as many as 90,000 children this year from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are crossing the U.S. border without their parents.

About 1,100 are being housed temporarily at a facility at Lackland Air Force Base here.

"Every night, there's about 300 to 400 kids that come in without parents. This is just in the lower Rio Grande Valley," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.

In recent years, the number of children younger than 18 found trying to cross the Mexican border without their parents has skyrocketed. Between 2003 and 2011, between 6,000 and 7,500 children a year were landing in the custody of Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement program.

In 2012, border agents apprehended 13,625 unaccompanied children, and last year that number surged to more than 24,000 as children fled drug and gang violence in their home countries.

THURSDAY: Central American minors face danger crossing into USA
THURSDAY: Unaccompanied migrant kids flocking over border

"Half of them are fleeing for their lives," said Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar now in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. "Their decision is, 'Do I face possible death in migrating or sure death in staying?' "

This year, the number of kids that border agents catch in the USA is expected to more than triple, according to a draft internal Homeland Security memorandum reviewed by The Associated Press.

Several temporary and permanent resettlement centers on the border have opened just to house unaccompanied migrant children. But the HHS' Administration for Children & Families, which has responsibility for the children, won't say where the centers are or how much is being spent for the kids' care.

"We don't reveal the names/numbers for regular/permanent shelters," spokesman Kenneth Wolfe wrote in answer to a list of questions. "The staffing ratio is one employee for every 12 children. We have several contractors around the country."

He did not return follow-up phone calls.

Under federal law, the unaccompanied children are supposed to be turned over to HHS within 72 hours. Most are then reunited with parents or other relatives already living in the United States.

But because of the massive influx of children this year, Customs and Border Protection has been forced to house many children in local patrol stations and recently has moved some young immigrants to Nogales, Ariz., where they are living temporarily in a warehouse.

WEDNESDAY: Arizona attorney general to inspect conditions for migrant children
SATURDAY: Hundreds more migrant children arrive in Arizona

When the children are transferred to HHS care, many are being housed temporarily at three military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas — including Lackland Air Force Base here — because of a lack of room elsewhere.

Baptist Children's Financial Services, a nonprofit that also has contracts with the state of Texas to provide disaster relief, is staffing Lackland's temporary center. The charity hires workers through a medical staffing company called Favorite Staffing to watch the kids.

About 100 subcontractors often have 12-hour shifts and are paid $18 an hour, according to workers, who did not want to be identified.

The workers said the children are well cared for in an HHS program that includes three meals a day. But many of the unaccompanied minors cross the border with health problems including scabies, a contagious skin infection caused by mites, and head lice, also contagious in close quarters.

Cuellar has not been able to tour any of the facilities, but someone concerned about living conditions in at least one Customs and Border Protection location sent the congressman photos that showed a system choked with children, some behind chain-link fencing. Cuellar won't say where the center is to protect the photographer.

The American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant-rights groups filed a complaint Wednesday with the Department of Homeland Security detailing abuse and mistreatment that more than 100 children encountered while in the custody of Customs and Border Protection in the past year.

Almost three quarters said they were kept in custody longer than the legally mandated 72 hours; 4 in 5 said they were denied appropriate food and water. One 16-year-old girl was molested during a search. A 13-year-old boy was threatened with a rod, according to the complaint.

JUNE 6: Obama to provide legal aid to border-crossing children
JUNE 2: Obama creates group to help border-crossing kids

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved almost $78 million in additional money for two agencies within Homeland Security — Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — to help address the problems of a burgeoning number of child detainees and overcrowding.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to give the Obama administration $2 billion to handle the dramatic increase in unaccompanied child migrants.

All of this money is part of the federal budget that's funded annually through 12 appropriations bills, discretionary spending that is essentially frozen at current levels but that can be shifted internally to meet emergency needs. Other to-be-determined programs will face cuts.

Cuellar said Washington has been hiding from the problem of unaccompanied children crossing its borders.

"The problem with the administration is they don't want to give information," he said. "In fact, there's times when they don't want to give information to members of Congress. It's almost like they don't want the American public to know about the situation."

Contributing: Mariana Dale, The Arizona Republic; The Associated Press

1228 130 4 LINKEDIN 139 COMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1hOMxqL