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Number of undocumented children reaching Southwestern border surging

Organizations that help undocumented children find homes in Maryland say there has been a spike in the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America reaching the U.S. border — to the highest levels since the surge of 2014.

Advocates expect the influx to have a disproportionate impact in Maryland, home to a large population of Central American families, with whom these minors are likely to be placed. During the last wave of unaccompanied Central American children, federal officials reported that Maryland took in more of them on a per capita basis than any other state.

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Adonia Simpson, managing attorney for immigrant services at the Catholic Charities' Esperanza Center in Baltimore, said the numbers aren't as high as they were at the height of the last wave. But they're much higher than last year at this time, and trending upward.

"They started to really increase in August pretty steadily," Simpson said.

The Esperanza Center tracks the number of people — generally family members of undocumented children — that it fingerprints for background checks. The number in October was 71 — well below the 110 fingerprinted at the height of the last wave of minors in June 2014 but almost four times the total of 18 in October of that year, after that surge receded.

Simpson said the center, which helps place immigrant children with families and connect them with legal services, was just beginning to recover from the strain put on it by the last surge. She said the center now has 40 cases in need of pro bono attorneys and a waiting list on which the next available appointment is in April.

"We were just starting to get that under control and now we're seeing the numbers increase," she said. As the children are placed with families, she said, Maryland school systems are likely to face the challenge of educating a new influx of children who need to learn English.

The U.S. Border Patrol reported apprehending nearly 5,000 immigrant children in October, a 97 percent increase year-over-year. The number of family units — children traveling with adult family members — that were taken into custody increased 179 percent to more than 6,000.

"DHS and the State Department are working together on public awareness campaigns to educate those considering making the dangerous journey northward," the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement. "Our messaging to Central American and Mexican communities emphasizes the dangers of the journey, dispels misinformation about our immigration policies, and underscores that those attempting to come here illegally are a top priority for removal."

As in the previous wave, the greatest numbers of the children and families came from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — countries plagued by gang violence and political unrest.

The plight of these children was front page news across the country last year. At the height of the crisis in July 2014, Maryland's Martin O'Malley broke with many of his fellow governors by rolling out the welcome mat for the children. He invited religious leaders to the State House to discuss ways of finding foster homes for the children rather than putting them in large group homes, and directed officials to treat them as refugees rather than lawbreakers.

Maryland took in 3,884 unaccompanied children during fiscal year 2014, more than all but six much larger states. The figure for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 dropped to 1,784. Prince George's and Montgomery counties absorbed the most children. Baltimore and Baltimore County were next.

Wendy Young, president of Washington-based Kids in Need of Defense, said the current surge is not producing heart-rending pictures of children sleeping on floors in makeshift shelters because the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement now has enough beds. But it's still straining her organization's ability to provide legal representation for children who face deportation proceedings.

"Nobody's been able to handle the numbers since this crisis started," she said. She dates that start to 2011, as conditions in Central American deteriorated.

Kim Haynes, director of children's services at Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said the federal resettlement office has asked her organization to increase its capacity to receive more children.

Advocates for immigrants say the numbers reaching the border declined for a while despite continuing or worsening problems in Central America.

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The San Antonio Express-News reported in September that the decline apparently stemmed from stepped-up efforts in Mexico to prevent young Central Americans from reaching the border. But Young said that effort appears to have become less effective.

"Smugglers have adjusted their routes to avoid increased law enforcement efforts to crack down on their movement, often taking more remote and difficult routes that endanger the children's lives even further," she said. "But the children keep coming."

Kim Propeack, political director of the immigrant rights group CASA de Maryland, pointed to an Obama administration program called Central American Minors as another reason for the recent spike.

Propeack said the program, designed to deter illegal immigration by letting Central Americans apply for refugee status from their own countries, has issued only 11 visas for all of El Salvador. As a result, she said, parents who might have held off sending their children north in response to gang threats, have apparently given up on the program.

"It's been a total, abject failure," she said.

During last year's campaign for governor, Larry Hogan disagreed with O'Malley's welcoming stance and said the federal government should keep the children as close to the southern border as possible rather than send them to Maryland to be with relatives. But advocates for immigrants say they've seen no sign that Hogan is rolling up the welcome mat.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer declined to say how the governor will react to the surge.

"It's a federal program," Mayer said. "The federal government won't tell us what their names are. They won't tell us where they're being located."

But Mayer expressed no urgency about that lack of information.

"If they wanted to provide it, we'd certainly take it," he said.

Unaccompanied minors

Top Maryland locations for placements, October 2014 to September 2015

Prince George's County: 664

Montgomery County: 534

Baltimore: 141

Baltimore County: 130

Anne Arundel County: 80

Frederick County: 73

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Howard County: 54

SOURCE: Office of Refugee Resettlement

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