The new Mexican migration law behind the phenomenon
The number of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border into the United States, especially southern Texas, has increased significantly this year.
According to the Wall Street Journal, from October to April the U.S. government took into custody 6,500 unaccompanied minors who had crossed the border illegally, almost double the number compared to the same period the previous year.
Most of them range in age between 14 and 17 and come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries that are close to Mexico's southern border.
In contrast to the overall decline of illegal immigrants, this sharp rise has been associated by immigration experts with the fact that Mexico has begun deporting fewer children arriving without visas .
The Mexican law which came into force last May lets minors who enter that country remain there without visas for humanitarian reasons, allowing more children safe passage to the U.S. border. The children are often transported by smugglers hired by family members, experts say.
Concerned by the situation he described as a "humanitarian crisis", Texas Governor Rick Perry has written to U.S. President Barack Obama to urge the federal government to do more.
"By failing to take immediate action to return these minors to their country of origin and prevent others from coming, the federal government is perpetuating the problem," the governor wrote.
While young immigrants have been picked up in increased numbers all along the southern border, the situation has become particularly acute in Texas. In one shelter at an Air Force base in San Antonio, about 200 children live in a squat, brown military barrack, sleeping on cots.
"In the past, unaccompanied children from Central America would be detained and deported" from Mexico, said Meredith Linsky, the director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, Texas, which provides legal representation to immigrants.
"Many of the children", she said, "are escaping gang violence and poverty and seek to reunite with parents who are in the U.S."
Shelters in South Texas are struggling to keep up with the influx, she added. "There are cots on the ground in gyms," she said. "They look like emergency shelters you would see run by the Red Cross."
The federal Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the children were being well cared for at the temporary Texas shelters.
The kids have constant adult supervision and medical care, said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, as well as "three meals and two snacks daily." The agency said it allocated $33.5 million to cover additional costs associated with the surge in youth immigration.
Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican embassy in Washington, said in a statement that Mexico's new immigration law strengthens "the protection of non-accompanied minors in Mexico," and ensures that when children are deported, they are returned to their home countries safely. He said it is too early to tell whether the law had led to a decline in the number of children that Mexico sends back to their native countries. "Mexican authorities interview all non-accompanied minors and through established protocols, work with Consular officials from Central American nations in Mexico to ensure the minors return to their countries of origin safely," he added.