Hundreds of infants and toddlers ages 2 years or younger have allegedly been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol while crossing the border illegally without a parent or guardian in the past year.
From October 1, 2013 to June 11, Border Patrol detained 378 unaccompanied children ages two or younger, according to data obtained by Fusion from the office of a high-ranking Democratic senator. Of those children, 95 were infants under 1 year old.
Fusion tried multiple times by phone and in writing to confirm the reports with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security, but no official would comment specifically, and instead referred to a previous statement. The Department of Health and Human Services, charged with the care of unaccompanied minors caught at the border, did not respond to a request for comment.
Omar Zamora, a spokesperson for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, limited his comment to: “We are receiving children of all ages.”
Official data from last year shows that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement logged 27 deportations of children under the age of two, suggesting the federal government has processed infants in the past.
Emily Butera, a senior program officer at the Women's Refugee Commission, said she has seen unaccompanied babies in the shelter system in past years, but that the problem is getting worse. She said the youngest kids are sometimes sent across the border with older siblings, or with paid smugglers.
Butera said the average age of an unaccompanied child migrant is now 14 years old, younger than in previous years. “And we’re seeing more babies and toddlers than we had in the past,” she said.
The phenomenon puts an exclamation point on the greater immigration crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border. Roughly 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the border since October 2013, an increase fueled largely by people fleeing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
In response to what the White House has called an “urgent humanitarian situation,” the Obama administration on Friday announced major policy changes to step up enforcement of existing immigration laws.
Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters that his department is searching for locations to open new detention centers that are suited to house adults with children. He said the government will expand the use of alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring devices, to track migrants who are released from custody.
Many recently arrived migrants have reportedly been released from custody to stay with relatives. They are instructed to report to the nearest immigration detention center for processing. Mayorkas on Friday could not provide an exact number of immigrants who have been released to family members and asked to return to custody.
He did, however, say that more immigration judges and asylum officers will be sent to the border region to help speed up processing.
The government’s enforcement beef-up comes as the White House tries to combat the misperception south of the border that Central American migrants can enter the U.S. legally if they are traveling with children. Between last October and the end of May, 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended at the border, Mayorkas said.
The flood tide has forced the Obama administration to pursue coordinated strategies on both sides of the border. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Guatemala on Friday to enlist Central American leaders for help. He phoned Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández to say that child migrants are not eligible for deportation relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The White House did, however, offer an additional $10 million to Central American governments to re-integrate young migrants who are sent back to their home countries
White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz said Biden’s trip is to combat the “misinformation that is being deliberately planted by the criminal organizations… about what people can expect if they come to the United States."
Republicans blame Obama’s immigration policies for triggering the influx of Central American children.
“The policies of your administration have directly resulted in the belief by these immigrants that once they reach U.S. soil, they will be able to stay here indefinitely,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote in a letter to President Obama on Friday.
The letter called on the president to deploy National Guard troops to “deal with the needs of these children and relieve border patrol.” Mayorkas said the administration was reviewing the letter, but that the National Guard is not normally deployed in situations like this.
The White House hopes increased law enforcement will slow the migrant rush. But Democrats and immigrant-rights groups hope the increased effort won’t result in mass detentions.
“We don’t want to be warehousing young children,” said Karen Tumlin, the managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center.
“There are alternatives to detention like ankle bracelets and supervision to manage the backlog in processing that are much more humane and cost-effective than taxpayer-funded public or for-profit detention centers,” said Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.)
Infants and toddlers represent a small fraction of the unaccompanied children detained at the border, but they present a unique challenge, authorities say.
“Apprehending infants and children can be difficult for Border Patrol agents; our facilities are not designed with people that young in mind,” said Shawn Moran, a spokesperson for the National Border Patrol Council. “We often have minimal amounts of diapers, formula, and other items for the care of infants and toddlers.”
Geneva Sands contributed reporting to this story.