Since 2009, an average of 7,000 minors have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally every year, without a parent or a guardian. Many end up in California, often in search of a family member, and that number has grown exponentially since last October.
No one can say exactly why so many kids are crossing the border, mainly along Arizona and Texas. But 5,000 of them, most of them teenage boys from Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, have made it to the U.S. in the past six months alone.
Tricia Swartz from Washington-based advocacy group the U.S. Committee For Refugees and Immigrants is among those speculating that the rise may be due to drug- and gang-related violence in those countries.
She said once the kids cross into the U.S., they are taken by the Office of Refugee Resettlement for up to three months. During that time, the agency decides whether they should be reunited with family members in the U.S. or sent back to their home countries.
“Once the children end up in ORR care, then kicks in a system of trying to find out who can be the caretaker of this child," Swartz explained. "Can it be a parent? Can we find that parent?”
Here in L.A., consulates have been informed about the troubling trend and are struggling to assist families.
Guatemalan Consul Pablo Cesar Garcia Saenz said his office is aware of several children from his country who have been transferred to ORR custody in the Los Angeles area.
“They’re still being processed," he said. "What we’ve been able to guarantee for them is a safe place for them to stay, where their rights won’t be violated, until we can figure out if they can stay in the U.S. or return to Guatemala."
Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Office of Refugee Resettlement would speak on record, but government data shows that in the case of unaccompanied children, typically nine in every 10 are reunited with their families — either here or in their country of origin.