How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant kids opening in Ventura County

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On Friday, federal officials plan to open an emergency shelter in Ventura County for unaccompanied migrant children. It’s part of the government’s response to a recent, dramatic spike in children and teens crossing the U.S.-Mexico border solo, without an adult family member.

The 600-bed shelter will be located on a naval base at Port Hueneme, and operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s the second emergency shelter for minors to open this year; a thousand-bed shelter at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas that was used briefly two years ago was reopened last month.

The decision to open the Ventura shelter comes as the federal government grapples with a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. According to HHS, the number of kids arriving solo has gone from roughly 6,500 in fiscal year 2011 to nearly 25,000 in 2013, a number that’s expected to more than double this year.

Many are fleeing violence in Central America, says Kristen Jackson, a staff attorney with the immigration project of Public Counsel in Los Angeles. The majority of youths that have arrived in recent years have come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, she said.

“There are real push factors bringing these children out of Central America and into the United States," Jackson said, "including extreme poverty and increases in violence within the children’s home countries.”

While it was once more typical for authorities to find unaccompanied teenage boys at the border, there are now more younger children arriving - elementary school age and younger - and more girls. Some face physical and sexual abuse at the hands of smugglers and others along the way.

This week, President Obama directed government agencies to respond to the unaccompanied minors crisis, calling it an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The Obama administration has asked Congress for additional funding to help house and feed the youths, a push that includes the Department of Defense temporary shelters.

Gabriella Busch, an immigration attorney in Ventura, says she’s already seen many more cases involving minors in her area, even without the new shelter open. She says that most of the time, these kids are either sent - or sent for - by well-meaning parents or other guardians.

“They look at what they have facing them, which is a life of poverty, and it just seems so enticing to go ahead and make that trip," Busch said. "I’m pretty sure that if the parents knew what these kids are actually going through, they wouldn’t put them in that danger.”

The shelters in Ventura County and San Antonio are intended for short-term use and aren't intended to stay open more than 120 days, a spokeswomen for HHS said. The idea is to house older kids, no younger than 12, temporarily while the government determines what relatives can take custody while their immigration cases are pending.

Younger children are housed in other shelters administered by HHS. These include a couple of facilities in the Los Angeles area, which local immigration service providers say aren't enough to accommodate the growing demand.

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