As the Division Director of Immigration and Legal Services for Catholic Charities of Dallas, Vanna Slaughter has long received email updates whenever young migrants arrive alone in the Dallas area. For some time, she says, she's received around 250 of these cases in a given month -- already a large increase from two or three years ago. Recently, though, she's watched that number climb even higher.
It's evidence of recent spike in unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into the United States, decried this week by President Obama as an "urgent humanitarian situation." He announced plans to create a multiagency task force to address the issue.
Prior to 2012, between 6,000 and 8,000 unaccompanied kids were caught crossing the border every year, according to estimates. But rampant gang violence in Central America has sent thousands more streaming toward the border in the years since. The Department of Health and Human Services expects the number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border to soar as high as 60,000 in 2014.
Most come from Honduras and El Salvador, braving treacherous hikes and, often, a perilous ride atop a freight train known as The Beast, where migrants are sometimes killed or kidnapped by drug cartels. Many travel to reunite with one or both parents who have already come to the United States; others are hoping to connect with more distant relatives.
When they arrive at the border, they're typically detained and held at shelters until case workers can identify and connect with those family members. Nearly 1,000 of these children currently reside at Lackland Air Force Base in South Texas.
Many eventually arrive in Dallas, which has seen a corresponding surge in unaccompanied immigrant children in recent months. When a child arrives in the Dallas area, either claimed by a Dallas-based family member or foster parent while they await a deportation hearing, Slaughter and Catholic Charities are notified. They offer a legal orientation program and try to connect the children with lawyers.
"We make sure kids appear in immigration court and are given good care," says Slaughter. "We give them [relatives] legal orientation, what remedies might be available to them, let them know of their responsibilities and provide medical, health, and community resources."
The Human Rights Initiative of North Texas represents many of these children in court. Executive Director Bill Holston says his organization often works to earn these children Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) Status, which allows them to stay in the United States.
"If the child can show that they were abandoned or abused by one or both parents, they can get the visa," Holston says. Until recently, kids cases were assigned to one of America's toughest immigration judges, Dietrich Sims, who grants asylum less frequently than almost any judge in the country. He was removed from the kids' docket earlier this year, after complaints from lawyers and questions from the Dallas Observer and Dallas Morning News.
Obama's task force will aim to ease a bit of the burden on stressed border resources for the kids. The White House has asked Congress to add $1.4 billion to be directed toward the situation. The Departments of Homeland Security, State, Defense, and Health and Human Services are all collaborating to deal with the struggles of the increased number of unaccompanied children.
For now, though, Slaughter and advocates like her continue to work away behind the scenes for the rights of these children -- doing, in her small but far-reaching way, what she can to ensure their physical and emotional wellbeing.