Children detainees sleep Wednesday in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. Thousands of immigrant children crossing alone into the U.S. can live in American cities, attend public schools and possibly work here for years without consequences. / Eric Gay / Associated Press
Federal authorities announced they had canceled their plan to fly nearly 300 Central American immigrants to Southern California from Texas, but left the door the open to the possibility that the plan could be reinstated.
Border Patrol spokesman Ralph DeSio told the Associated Press Sunday that he didn't know why the flights had been canceled, and described the planning as being "in a very fluid state."
Even as the flights were put on hold, workers at a federal training site in New Mexico erected a fence around its grounds over the weekend in preparation for the expected arrival of hundreds more illegal border-crossers later this week.
The arrangements are part of the Department of Homeland Security's latest efforts to apprehend and process what it says is a surge in illegal border crossings by children in the Rio Grande Valley. Thousands of the children are not traveling with an adult.
While overall border apprehensions remain at historic lows, a recent dramatic increase in the number of people under age 18 illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in Texas, presents "unique operational challenges" for federal authorities, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"The issue we face is as much a humanitarian one as it is a matter of border security," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.
The numbers of children, whether with an adult or by themselves, began to increase in 2011 and has continued to grow, particularly in the last month. The federal government says more than 52,000 children traveling alone have been caught crossing the border illegally since October.That's up from about 7,000 a year before 2011.
"I call it a spike within a surge," said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice program for the Women's Refugee Commission, a non-profit group that has tracked the trend for more than 20 years.
Minors have certain legal protections, Brané said. "It's not like you can just release them, and you don't want to hand them over to just anybody because there are child-welfare protocols. And then there are legal restraints on the detention - you can't just lock them up. They're children, so they need a different kind of care" than adults require.
Brané said her group's research suggests the children are fleeing from violence in their native countries. "Most of the families who have been coming over the last couple of years are seeking asylum.
"My concern is that I don't want these processing centers to turn into long-term detention centers."
It's not clear whether unaccompanied children will be among those transferred to California or New Mexico. Border patrol officers in Texas referred reporters' calls Sunday to the Department of Homeland Security's Washington news media office. Efforts to reach public information officers Sunday by phone and email were unsuccessful.
The Department of Homeland Security said Friday its Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., will serve as temporary housing for adults with children.
Paul Beeson, chief of the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, told the Associated Press that facilities in his area will house adults and families with young children but no unaccompanied children. Border Patrol will fly two flights of 140 passengers each to facilities in San Diego and El Centro, Calif. Transfers will continue every three days for an indefinite period of time.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will decide whether the Central Americans - mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - remain in custody or are released while they are in deportation proceedings. ICE has only one detention center designed for families, an 85-bed facility in Berks County, Pa,, that was once a nursing home.
The Border Patrol flew a large number of families from Texas to Tucson over Memorial Day weekend, drawing criticism from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer when ICE later dropped them off at Greyhound bus stations there.
U.S. border authorities have detained more than 39,000 adults with young children from October through May. The Department of Homeland Security has refused to say how many have since been released and whether they failed to appear in immigration court.
Contributing: Associated Press
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