Central Border Patrol A 10-year-old child alone at the border
Footage of a 10-year-old Nicaraguan child sobbing and walking alone on a rural road in Texas earlier this month has drawn international attention as a startling — and humanizing — example of the increase in unaccompanied migrant kids making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The video, taken April 1 by a Rio Grande border patrol agent, shows the distraught boy crying to law enforcement and explaining that he had woken up to realize that the group with whom he was traveling had left him behind.
"I came looking because I didn't know where to go, and they can also rob or kidnap me or something," he tells the officer in the video.
In a statement to PEOPLE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agent "transported the child to a Border Patrol facility where he was fed and medically screened."
"As with all unaccompanied alien children the border patrol encounters, he will be safely transferred to the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement," the agency added.
Jennfer Podkul, the vice president of policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, explains that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) will next "provide care and custody until they can find a sponsor or someone to take care of the child."
Unlike Customs and Border Protection, which is a law enforcement agency, the department of Health and Human Services (which manages the Office of Refugee Resettlement) is an agency with child welfare expertise.
That's an important distinction, experts say, particularly when it comes to kids who are legally supposed to be at a border detention facility no longer than 72 hours.
Because of the rise in the number of children coming to the U.S. in recent months, however, many are staying in such facilities for much longer before making their way to a shelter managed by ORR.
"They are spending longer than 72 hours in the CBP facilities, both because they coming in large numbers but also because of the pandemic," says Jennifer Nagda, policy director at The Young Center, an advocacy group for immigrant children.
Because the ORR facilities are so large — Nagda cites one in Texas that houses 1,400 beds — they had to reduce capacity amid COVID-19. But the Trump administration didn't take any steps to add capacity elsewhere.
"When the court said the border has to open, a lot of those kids returned to the border," Nagda tells PEOPLE. "That's created a strain on the system."
Federal data shows that some 19,000 unaccompanied migrant children were in federal custody as of this week, CBS News reported.
The Nicaraguan boy's experience, which made headlines this week, underlines the situation at the southern border amid the latest in a recurring influx of migrant children and families.
Experts say the root cause of such migration, the majority of it from Central America, is not quickly solved.
Former President Donald Trump adopted a "zero-tolerance" policy as a deterrent, resulting in the widely denounced separation of parents and children.
President Joe Biden, who campaigned on a more humane approach to immigration, has drawn criticism for the temporary conditions migrant children have been held in. His administration, in conceding the government was overwhelmed, has urged patience.
In the case of the Nicaraguan boy, as with other migrant children, officials first identify a sponsor (or, if they cannot, put the minor into long-term foster care). Then the child can begin living with that person and enroll in school — though they'll do so without knowing how long their stay in the U.S. will last.
Podkul explains that the average length of stay under the purview of ORR is about a month, then the child will go to live with a sponsor. But the deportation court process begins almost immediately, once the child is first spotted by border agents.
Podkul's organization is a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of unaccompanied migrant children and represents some of their cases in court, though she notes that less than half of the kids under deportation proceedings in the U.S. have an attorney to help them.
"Once he's put into deportation proceedings, it will be up to him to prove to a judge that he should be able to stay," unless he is able to hire an attorney or is connected with one through a nonprofit organization, Podkul says of the 10-year-old boy.
"When they use an attorney, these kids almost always win their cases," Nagda tells PEOPLE.
The video of the Nicaraguan boy comes a week after CBP released footage of what it said were smugglers dropping two Ecuadorian girls, ages 3 and 5, over a 14-foot border fence in the New Mexico desert.
"Immediately after both children landed on the ground, two smugglers immediately fled the area and abandoned the helpless little girls on the north side of the international boundary line," read a CBP statement released with the footage.
According to the agency, the children were evaluated by medical personnel and "remain in Border Patrol temporary holding pending placement by Health and Human Services."
On Tuesday, U.S. Border Patrol said its officers rescued two other children who had been abandoned along the border and were found "alone and crying."
Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Intensive-care tents at the Carrizo Springs, Texas, detention center for migrant children.
"The children, a six-year-old boy and five-year-old girl, were unable to communicate with agents except for providing their names," border patrol said in a statement, adding that the children "provided agents a handwritten note which had their mom's name and phone number on it."
Agents obtained additional information about the kids after they contacted the mother. The children have since been processed and will be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the CBP.
Podkul says that the U.S. started seeing a rise in the number of minors coming to the border around 2014, under President Barack Obama.
"That was the first year we saw very large numbers of unaccompanied kids coming to the border," Podkul says. "The majority were coming from Guatamela, Honduras and El Salvador, because of instability in their home countries."
Facing things like gangs targeting young people and high rates of intra-family violence, the minors began traveling to the U.S. — some with larger groups of family or community members and some entirely on their own.
"I spoke with an 11-year-old who was being targeted by gangs and thought they were going to hurt his younger siblings," Podkul says. "He left in the middle of the night, didn't tell his mother, didn't tell his siblings."
Since 2014, conditions in those and other neighboring countries Central American have only deteriorated, Podkul says, due to natural disasters, increased violence and COVID-19. More kids and families needed to get out and sought refuge in the U.S. but were turned away due to a Trump-era policy called Title 42, which allowed Customs and Border Protection to expel migrants entering illegally to prevent the spread of coronavirus in holding facilities.
In November, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. couldn't use public health law to turn way unaccompanied migrants, and people again began returning to the border.
"These children are fleeing situations of extraordinary danger and violence, otherwise they wouldn't be making the journey," Nagda says.
As she and Podkul explain, some of the children coming to the U.S. have family in the country already with whom they are trying to reunite.
"That's a common trend we see among refugee populations globally: When someone has to flee, they go to a place where they know they'll have support," Podkul says.
The journey to cross the border is not an easy one, particularly for a child. Podkul says that some kids might might stop and work along the way in different areas of Mexico, washing cars or doing odd jobs to make money for food.
Those navigating the journey to the U.S. border face other hurdles, too — such as staying fed and well-hydrated, crossing large bodies of waters and crossing through areas controlled by gangs.
Some children join a group that their family has paid to help them. In those cases, the kids can get separated from their family during a storm or when a cartel holds an adult hostage in an effort to extort money.
In other cases, the children might be abandoned.
"In terms of these cases where they are abandoned or dropped over the border, there are some of these smugglers who are doing it to make money, so sometimes they believe the group can't wait or a kid can't keep up," Podkul says.
While she says her organization is grateful the Biden administration is "taking child protection seriously," she adds that the U.S. "really needs to create a system that isn't just based on a law enforcement approach to these kids and make sure we are receiving them in a humanitarian way — so they aren't dropped over a wall or abandoned in a desert."