Undocumented children are flooding South Texas with numbers growing exponentially, and our federal government is helping them out.
In an unprecedented special report, KENS 5 takes viewers on the same journey traveled by thousands of children forced to leave everything behind in search of the American dream.
Gang violence, lack of opportunity, and misinformation has lead to a mass exodus north to the United States for these desperate children.
KENS 5 presents "Immigration Crisis: The Lost Children" in both English and Spanish as part of our ongoing effort to inform all audiences and encourage civic participation in the debate over immigration.
VIDEO: Immigration Crisis: The Lost Children (English)
VIDEO: Crisis Migratoria: Los Niños Perdidos (en Español)
Imagine taking a 1,200 mile trip.
Now imagine a 10-year-old taking that same trip across three different countries, and without parents.
Undocumented children are flooding into South Texas. As the numbers grow exponentially, the federal government is helping them out.
The KENS 5 I-Team has discovered that unlike undocumented adults, who are often sent back to their home country or detained in federal facilities, many of the children who cross the border remain here to seek amnesty or special immigration status.
Under the cover of darkness, nearly 40,000 undocumented people streamed across the Texas-Mexico border last year. And authorities estimate half of that total were minors.
When unaccompanied alien children (UAC) enter the country and are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security's immigration officials, they are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement's website:
ORR makes and implements placement decisions in the best interests of the UAC to ensure placement in the least restrictive setting possible while in federal custody. ORR takes into consideration the unique nature of each UAC's situation and incorporates child welfare principles when making placement, clinical, case management, and release decisions that are in the best interest of the child.
During the 2012 fiscal year, the UAC program doubled from the previous eight years. Previously, the program averaged 6,775 referrals. The increase continued for 2013's fiscal year to 24,668. They are expecting 60,000 referrals for 2014.
The increase in UAC referrals has expanded the program's cost by 580 percent.
On average, boy referrals are greater, at around a 3:1 ratio. In 2012, 17 percent of referrals were younger than 14. That number increased to 24 percent in 2013.
The most common native country for UAC referrals, with more than a third of the total, was Guatemala.
In 2003, U.S. law became friendlier to the undocumented youth, placing unaccompanied minors under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, and not the Department of Homeland Security's immigration agency.
Federal officials admit the additional care could be making illegal trips look more appealing.
As more minors cross the border, the budget has ballooned to meet their needs.
In 2008, it took around $133 million to provide food, clothing and administrative care to some 7,000 undocumented children.
In 2014, the program is expected to cost nearly $1 billion and service some 60,000 kids, with ages ranging from just a few months old to 17 years old.
Minors must demonstrate to Texas family court judges that they've been neglected, abused or abandoned by one parent.
The alternative is to seek asylum in the United States, which attorneys say is even tougher.
President Barack Obama appealed to Congress on July 8 for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to deal with the immigration crisis.
Obama said in a formal letter of request that the money was needed to "address this urgent humanitarian situation."
Lawmakers are now beginning to confront the full dimensions of the crisis, and their responsibility to act, with midterm elections around the corner.
It all comes with comprehensive immigration legislation dead in Congress for the year and Obama preparing to take steps by his executive authority to change the nation's faulty immigration system where he can.
White House officials are seeking to change a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush that guarantees immigration hearings to minors who arrive in this country from non-contiguous countries — anywhere other than Mexico or Canada. The law was pushed to combat sex trafficking and give young people new protections.
In the current crisis, it's resulted in children from Central American countries being released to family members or into foster care while they face long waits for court hearings they may never attend.
Kids from Mexico, by contrast, are screened by Border Patrol agents, who can decide to send them back unless determining they have a fear of return that merits additional screening.
The administration wants to be able to treat Central American children in much that same way, though officials say they want to retain the children's right to due process.
Leading congressional Republicans dug in July 13 on their view that the president's spending request to stem the flow of children across the southwest U.S. border is too costly and needs to include tougher immigration laws to pass.
The administration is also facing push back from some leading Democrats who think the president is bowing to GOP demands on deporting the children and not doing enough to address it as a humanitarian crisis.
In a rare agreement between the president and Republicans on an immigration debate, the administration has indicated support for new laws to fast track deportation proceedings even as leading congressional Democrats oppose it.
What the administration is more likely to resist is GOP efforts to trim the size of his spending request.
The issue has inspired protesters and conversation at the dinner table as to what should happen next to these kids.
The U.S. House Homeland Security Committee even came to the border July 2 to draw attention to the crisis. It was one of the largest congressional hearings ever conducted outside the U.S. Capitol.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it was spending a million dollars on an ad campaign in Central America, warning parents and children of the dangers of trying to enter the United States illegally.
CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said his agency is broadcasting 6,500 television and radio advertisements in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from July to September.
It's uncertain exactly what is driving the exodus of children from Central America.
Many of those unaccompanied children who are apprehended end up in San Antonio at a temporary shelter on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
The shelter opened its doors to members of the media. We were not allowed to take cameras in.
When a child arrives at the shelter, BCFS says they go through an intake process, orientation, and a health screening, followed by a hot shower.
They're given fresh linens and brought to their dormitory. Girls are in one building and boys in another. While walking through their dorms, you can see pictures on the walls drawn by the kids, many referencing their home country.
These children are unaccompanied from foreign countries primarily Central America.
Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland providing unaccompanied alien children with safe shelter
Since its opening May 18 and through this past Tuesday, BCFS says 1,820 children have come through their doors. The shelter has a capacity of 1,200 children. At the beginning of this week, 957 kids were staying there, all between the ages of 12 and 17.
The health of the children is a top priority here. 58 medical professionals work at the shelter.
They also supply the children with three meals a day, two snacks and games to make them feel more at home. But their main goal is to connect the youth with family or adults who can take care of them.
In addition to medical care, food, and help with reunification, the children are also educated in basic English, math, and arts and crafts.
On July 11, a group of demonstrators gathered at JBSA - Lackland.
The demonstrators said they want the children processed properly under current federal immigration laws and not simply deported to their home countries.
They held posters that read "Do not deport the children" and "Stop playing politics."
People driving by responded, both positively with a honk and a thumbs up, and negatively. One driver rolled down his window and shouted "Send them home."
The 11 demonstrators said the children are fleeing violence and poverty and should be considered refugees who are eligible for political asylum.
The topic even has high-profile pastors debating the issue on national TV. From a moral issue to fiscal issue, everyone seems to have an opinion as to what should happen to these children next.
Border crisis: Two preachers, two views on immigrant children
Protesters took to the sidewalk outside Sen. John Cornyn's Dallas office after a non-profit San Antonio company announced they were trying to buy a hotel as a permanent facility to house undocumented immigrant children. The company pulled out of the project.
"As a result of the negative backlash caused by information misreported to the public, BCFS Health and Human Services has made the decision to withdraw its proposal to establish a 600-bed facility for unaccompanied minors in Weslaco, Texas"
10-year-old boy could be deported back to his home country of Guatemala after making a more than 1,000 mile journey to the United States border.
Juan Angel Gonzalez De La Cruz is one of thousands of children illegally crossing the border during the recent surge.
The child says he was scared to make the trek on foot but determined to be with his immediate family.
De La Cruz was left by his mother and father when he was just 1-year and 9-months-old.
He hit the road on April 23 and didn t look back for the 16 days of travel.
During the day we didn t walk. We could rest, and at night, we would travel, he said in Spanish. I was afraid immigration would catch me and never let me go.
De La Cruz says the coyote his family hired abandoned him early on in the trip.
I got up, and nobody was there. I kept on walking, and followed the trail, explained De La Cruz. I felt lonely.
De La Cruz was accompanied by a 16-year-old.
He says they ran out of food and water just two days in and had to drink water from rivers to survive.
I was so thirsty, he said.
De La Cruz reached a border checkpoint in Laredo, TX, on May 9th.
He ended up in a shelter in San Antonio, and more than a month later he was released to his parents.
I felt happy because it was tremendous anguish. We didn t know if he was lost, explained mother Vivian De La Cruz.
De La Cruz is now living with his family in southwest Houston.
He s getting to know his 4-year-old brother and 15-month-old sister for the first time. They were both born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.
I came to study. I came to know my brother and sister, added De La Cruz.
The family is now awaiting a hearing with immigration officials. They fear that the 10-year-old will be deported.
Immigration attorney Raed Gonzalez says that is the sad reality for many of these kids.
We cannot just send these children back to god knows what, said attorney Raed Gonzalez. There s a lot of these children that came here because of a genuine need and cry of help.
Gonzalez says the law is meant to protect children who have a credible fear of returning to their home country.
Kids in Honduras explain why they're seeking refuge in US
"Our border is not open to legal migration and we are sending people back," said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
The Washington Office on Latin America is a human rights group that recorded video that shows people floating across the river that separates Guatemala and Mexico.
No one being checked or asked to show passports. Further north where there is no river that separates the two countries it's still easy for migrants to cross into Mexico.
The week of July 11, the presidents of Mexico and Guatemala came up with a 5 point plan to help with immigration crises.
The plan includes a promise of a greater commitment to staff Mexico's 10 crossings with Guatemala and two with Beliz, improving medical equipment at the border, working closer with non-profit organizations, working on economic development with shared border regions and providing care and assistance to immigrants.
Back at home, some members of congress are putting together legislation that would expedite the process of sending the undocumented children and women back home.
"The only way this is going to stop is if plane loads of children arrive back in the countries in central America they came from and parents see the 3, 4, 5, $6,000 they have paid to the human traffickers, is wasted," said U.S. senator John McCain of Arizona.
Eyewitness news has been told Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar will be introducing legislation aimed to reform current laws and solve the emergency situation along the border. The legislation is said to improve the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 by treating all unaccompanied minors equally.
Some Republicans said they would like to change the 2008 law that requires immigrants from countries other than Mexico and Canada to receive an immigration hearing to determine if there is a basis to apply for asylum.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the legislation was designed to provide greater protection "for vulnerable populations, particularly women and children" who come to the U.S. seeking humanitarian aid.
One San Antonio-based group is on the front lines of the issue, providing free legal services to many of the unaccompanied children who have crossed the border.
That group is called the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. One thing that RAICES does is provide counsel to undocumented children who, by law, are entitled to legal representation. The group receives no government funding and mainly relies on grants and donations.
RAICES executive director Jonathan Ryan said, every day, the group has attorneys that are consulting undocumented immigrants who are being sheltered by the federal government at Lackland Air Force Base.
"Our core set of services begins with education. We give the children a class called 'know your rights presentation' and it involves some posters with some information and photos to keep them engaged," said Ryan. "We explain to them their rights and their responsibilities to the immigration court, and that (their rights) continue even after they may be released from the shelter."
According to RAICES, most of the kids that come across the border qualify for asylum -- as refugees -- but without legal representation, their fate in the U.S. can be grim.
"Statistics and studies have proven that when children, or any immigrant, has access to council and basic civil legal services and information, they are much more likely to follow through with the immigration court process to the end," said Ryan.
Each day, RAICES strives to consult roughly 100 kids at Lackland about their legal rights.
Contributors: CNN, USA Today, Associated Press, Gannett Stations, KENS 5 Reporters.