DEL RIO, Texas—Border Patrol agents encountered a record number of unaccompanied children who crossed the southern border illegally and without a parent or guardian in 2021.
From January through December, agents apprehended more than 169,000 children under the age of 18—a record that more than doubled the previous all-time high in 2019, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
The “troubling trend” is continuing into 2022, according to Jason Owens, the Border Patrol Chief for the Del Rio sector in Texas.
“From Friday to Sunday, over 70 unaccompanied children have been found traveling alone or with complete strangers. Many tell us they have no idea where their parents currently are!” Owens wrote on Twitter earlier this month.
In some cases, children have been found wandering alone and lost in remote areas of the border after being abandoned. Many had a phone number or address of a contact in the United States written on their hand or on a piece of paper.
In one case, a Texas rancher found five abandoned children on her property. Border Patrol agents found an 8-year-old boy wandering alone in the New Mexico desert. Two toddlers were dropped over the border fence by smugglers. A 6-month-old baby was tossed from a smuggling raft into the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico.
Border Patrol prioritizes the transfer of minors (under the age of 18), who cross the border illegally without a parent or guardian, to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a subset of Health and Human Services.
Currently, on any given day, about 10,000 unaccompanied children are in ORR custody. In April last year, ORR had more than 22,000 children in its care at one time as the border crisis hit a new peak. The volume got so high, emergency shelters were set up in convention centers in Dallas, San Antonio, and San Diego; and California foster parents were asked if they could take in any children from Central America.
The ORR spends about $60 million a week to house the current volume of minors, the vast majority of whom are aged between 15 and 17.
The agency works to place a child with a sponsor within a few weeks, who are also most often in the country illegally. “In more than 80 percent of cases the child has a family member in the United States. In more than 40 percent of cases that family member is a parent or legal guardian,” according to a Health and Human Services email that contains the daily statistics.
“The children then go through immigration proceedings where they are able to present an application for asylum or other protection under the law.”