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33,000 kids flood US border
02:09 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Salvadoran girl, 15, crosses U.S. border illegally with brother, 12

She finds that U.S. holding facilities can't accommodate children

60,000 unaccompanied minors are projected to illegally cross the border this year

U.S. officials will speak with ambassadors from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

CNN  — 

America’s “urgent humanitarian situation” begins with a 15-year-old girl from El Salvador who spent 25 days on buses with her younger brother, traveling to the U.S. border.

She and the brother, 12, entered the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande River into Texas, and the law caught them a half hour later, the girl told CNN in an interview.

What happened next is when their – and the nation’s – real problems began.

The siblings are part of a rising tide of unaccompanied migrant children – mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – that’s so great that U.S. facilities can’t accommodate them all, estimated to total 60,000 this year, federal officials said Thursday.

Federal agencies announced they are stepping up efforts to return the influx of children to home countries.

The 15-year-old girl said the U.S. government wanted to separate the siblings by sending her brother from Texas to San Francisco, but the girl spoke up and said no – unlike other siblings who were separated because they feared taking a stand against U.S. officials.

But the siblings couldn’t use the bathroom in the adult facility in Texas because cameras watched them from the front and behind, she said. The food was awful. And they slept on a bare floor, without blankets. The children used plastic bags or someone’s rag to cover themselves, said the teen, whose name is being withheld because she is a minor.

Finally, the U.S. government moved the youngsters together to a California Health & Human Services Agency shelter.

“We didn’t suffer there,” the girl said in an interview, with her immigration attorney. “They gave us clothes, food and a bed, and everything.”

Department of Homeland Security officials couldn’t be immediately reached for comment about the 15-year-old girl’s claim, but Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters Thursday that, in general, it was “hazardous to send a child into South Texas to a processing center and a number of us here have seen them ourselves, (they) are no place for children.”

In disaster-like mode

On Thursday, U.S. officials addressed this rising tide of unaccompanied migrant children and pledged to use a framework typically used in disasters to ensure the minors are safely detained.

In addition to deploying the Coast Guard to transport and the military to house the undocumented youths, Johnson is talking with the ambassadors of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico to discuss “faster repatriation,” he said.

More immigration judges will be assigned for speedier removal proceedings, he said.

While Johnson suggested that unaccompanied minors are rushing to the border to take advantage of a deferred-deportation U.S. policy, the 15-year-old girl stated a dramatically different motivation for her perilous journey: violence in her home country. She and her brother left El Salvador on March 5.

“The reason I came is because we were in danger over there,” the girl said. “My mom and dad said we were better off coming here, that’s all I can say.”

Lindsay Toczylowski, an immigration attorney with the Los Angeles immigrant rights group Esperanza, said her agency’s interviews with more than 1,000 undocumented minors found Central America violence as the reason behind children daring to illegally enter the United States alone or with siblings.

“The levels of violence in central America is really big and there’s a crisis,” said Toczylowski, who is also an attorney for the girl and her brother.

U.S. law toward Central American minors

Johnson said that three-fourths of the unaccompanied children crossing the border come from three Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Federal law requires different treatment for undocumented minors from those nations.

Those minors aren’t immediately deported, unlike those from Mexico or Canada.

Rather, the Central American minors are turned over to the U.S. Department Health and Human Services within 72 hours of DHS taking them into custody.

The Central American children then may end up in the care of their parents or relatives now living in the United States, and the immigrant is given a court date. But very few actually show up, and the children often become some of the millions of undocumented immigrants, said a union official for U.S. Border Patrol agents.

In fact, U.S. officials found U.S.-based relatives for the 15-year-old El Salvadoran girl and her 12-year-old brother. The siblings were placed in the relatives’ care in the Los Angeles area about three weeks ago, the girl said.

With the influx of undocumented children like the 15-year-old girl, U.S. authorities have developed a placement system.

After arrest, the child receives a health screening and undergoes a routine process of fingerprinting and identification. Then the children are sent a short-term center for immunizations and a shelter assignment. The minors are transferred to a shelter until authorities are able to find their parents, relatives or a nonprofit agency sponsor.

If U.S. officials can’t find a parent or relative, the child may be placed temporarily in one of three military bases: Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Naval Base Ventura County in California, or Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The minor also may be placed in the care of nonprofit groups that mostly run group homes, federal officials said.

Urgent situation

Johnson suggested that the Central American families now believe that their undocumented children may be spared from U.S. deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, but such a belief is mistaken because the policy doesn’t apply to newly arrived minors, Johnson said.

Johnson said immigrant families may be assuming their undocumented children would some day be eligible for a proposed pathway to citizenship, but current immigration reform proposals don’t make such offers, Johnson said.

“Those apprehended at our border are priorities for removal. They are priorities for enforcement of our immigration laws regardless of age,” Johnson said.

The large number of border crossings by children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has been declared by President Barack Obama to be “an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response.”

In prior years, about 7,000 to 8,000 unaccompanied minors were caught entering the United States annually, but last year, the number grew to 24,000 and this year’s projection is 60,000, federal officials said Thursday.

“Our country is in the midst of a crisis manufactured by President Obama and his administration’s refusal to enforce our nation’s immigration laws. As a result, thousands of people from Central America – including unaccompanied children – are flooding into the United States and not fleeing from, but surrendering to, United States Border Patrol officials,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

She urged the congressional leaders to use their positions and influence to stop the “massive, unfettered influx.”

The minors have overwhelmed U.S. facilities on the border, which don’t have enough food, beds or sanitary facilities.

Those conditions have led to alleged sexual abuse, threats of violence, strip searches and filthy conditions, according to a complaint filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and four immigrant rights groups. Those accusations are being made by 116 minors represented by the groups.

The detention centers in Texas can no longer hold the large numbers of unaccompanied children or mothers traveling only with their children, forcing the federal government to open additional facilities.

Opinion: Border detention of children shames America

Sexual abuse of minors alleged at border as kids flock into U.S.

CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this story.