While President Obama has warned Central American parents not to send their children to the United States because they will be returned, at least 85 percent of boys and girls detained recently for illegally crossing the Southwest border have been released from shelters here.
Since October, the Department of Homeland Security has referred 50,688 children to the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the latter agency, which is tasked with caring for unaccompanied children caught entering the country.
Within the same time period, "43,209 minors have been discharged" from federal custody, says HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe in an e-mail. He also cited a 96 percent figure for the share of children who have been released to relatives in the US.
A steady number of migrant children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been nabbed crossing into the US alone in recent years, but a spike that began in 2012 and accelerated in 2013 has overwhelmed the system designed to protect unaccompanied minors. That has reignited the immigration debate and tested the Obama administration.
Advocates attribute the exodus of children from Central America to such factors as violence and poverty, but critics blame Mr. Obama's policies for encouraging youngsters to make the trek north.
"If you are really fearful of sexual violence or trafficking, or gang recruitment, you're still going to come, and there's no message about what the Obama policies are or not that's going to keep you in Guatemala or El Salvador or Honduras," says Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The president has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the rising numbers of unaccompanied minors and other Central American immigrants slipping across the border, primarily through south Texas.
Minors from Mexico also are being captured crossing the border, but with few exceptions, they are quickly screened and sent back.
Central American minors, after being processed by border patrol, are sent to approximately 100 permanent shelters, according to Mr. Wolfe. There, children can attend classes and get counseling under tight supervision.
The large influx of children has forced the government to open additional temporary shelters.
The release of the children to a relative or guardian is appropriate under a 2008 bipartisan law that offers enhanced protection to young border-crossers from non-neighboring countries, Mr. Chen says.
Children who are united with relatives must appear in immigration court for a legal review of their case. After what can be a lengthy process because of a backlog, they may be allowed to stay if they are eligible.
Many minors may not qualify to remain here, Chen notes, "but our legal system will provide them a fair result, not something that's done by a summary process at the border."
But some members of Congress have signaled that they will seek to expedite the deportation process for Central American minors, something the White House also has alluded to.
Texas lawmakers Sen. John Cornyn (R) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) have announced plans to introduce legislation that would amend the 2008 law to enable a speedy return of unaccompanied minors to their native countries.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake and Rep. Matt Salmon (R) – all of Arizona, where many Central Americans caught in Texas are now in detention – also plan to file similar legislation.
"This crisis will continue until the parents who paid thousands of dollars to smuggle their children north to the United States see plane-loads of them landing back at home – their money wasted," Senator McCain said in a statement.
In what was billed as a first, a chartered flight carrying mothers and children being deported by the US landed Monday in Honduras, according to the Los Angeles Times. US officials say more such flights will occur.