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Child immigrant numbers soaring

In this April 19, 2011, photo, a member of the National Guard checks on his colleague inside a Border Patrol Skybox near the Hidalgo International Bridge in Hidalgo, Texas. An unprecedented surge of children caught trudging through South Texas scrublands or crossing at border ports of entry without their parents has sent government and nonprofit agencies that handle their shelter, legal representation and reunifications scrambling to expand their services.

McALLEN, Texas (AP)-- An unprecedented surge of children caught trudging through South Texas scrublands or crossing at border ports of entry without their families has sent government and nonprofit agencies scrambling to expand their shelter, legal representation and reunification services. On any given day this year, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement has been caring for more than 2,100 unaccompanied child immigrants.

The influx came to light last week when 100 youth were taken to Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio for temporary housing. It was the first time the government has turned to the Defense Department -- now, 200 boys and girls younger than 18 stay in a base dormitory.

While the issue of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. isn't new, the scale of the recent increase is. From October 2011 through March, 5,252 children landed in U.S. custody without a parent or guardian -- a 93 percent increase from the same period the previous year, according to data released by the Department of Health and Human Services. In March alone, 1,390 youth arrived.

"The whole community right now is in triage mode," said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that matches pro bono attorneys with unaccompanied minors navigating the immigration system. "It's important that the resources and the capacity meet the need, and we're not quite there yet."

The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities in 10 states range from shelters to foster homes and have about 2,500 beds. Government-contracted shelters were maxing out their emergency bed space, setting up cots in gymnasiums and other extra spaces.

"It's a much more limited set of services," said Lauren Fisher of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which helps children and their families navigate the system. "It felt something like a Red Cross shelter, a hurricane shelter."

Unaccompanied children are first processed by the Department of Homeland Security, and then turned over to the ORR while the deportation process begins. Once in a shelter, the search begins for their relatives or an acceptable custodian, while nonprofit organizations try to match the children with pro bono attorneys. When a custodian is found, the child can leave the shelter and await immigration proceedings.

Eighty percent of the children referred to the ORR end up in a shelter, according to a report released last month by the Vera Institute of Justice -- a nonprofit that developed a program to better provide access to legal services for children. The average shelter stay is 61 days, and the report found that at least 65 percent of the youth end up with a sponsor in the U.S.

The cause of the surge remains a mystery to child migrant advocates and government officials. The children are coming from the same places as usual -- Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico -- and they offer the same range of explanations: they made the trek to look for parents already in the U.S.; they're seeking economic opportunity to send money home; they want to escape violence or abuse.

"We're talking to the children, but we don't have one solid answer," Fisher said. "There seem to be the same reasons that we've seen before."

Some have suggested that human smugglers are more aggressively marketing their services. Others wonder if the Border Patrol, whose presence has doubled in recent years, is simply catching more of them. But Border Patrol apprehensions of children and adults were cut in half from 2008 to 2011, and only 5 percent of those caught are unaccompanied children. Younger children commonly cross with adult smugglers at the ports of entry, while older youth join groups that follow guides through the brush.