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Most Child Migrants Reunite with Family, but Some May Need Foster Care

The term "unaccompanied minor" has been used for the large numbers of children crossing the border illegally in recent months, but what's not often talked about is exactly how many of these kids cross the border with no parent or guardian waiting to meet them on the U.S. side.

That raises the question of how many the kids will need long-term foster care while they await their date in immigration court, or if they're granted refugee status.

There is no doubt there’s an alarming amount of children crossing illegally into the United States.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the federal government’s Health and Human Services department, says 30,000 children children crossing illegally and traveling unaccompanied by a parent or guardian have been apprehended by Border Patrol. Over 4,000 of them have been apprehended in Texas alone.

Illegal border crossing, both by minors and adults, have been happening for years. But this time things are different. Migrants are actually turning themselves in to the first border patrol agent they see.

"The majority of kids we see are here to reunify," says Melissa Weaver, a women and children's program attorney with the Human Rights Initiative, a non-profit that provides free legal assistance to undocumented victims of violent crime, including this new wave of unaccompanied minors.

She says while a child might cross unaccompanied, they might not retain that status for long.

"They have a parent here, or an aunt or an uncle or a cousin," she says, "there's someone that they're coming into the United States to live with."

Kenneth Poole, Deputy Director for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, says 96% of minors in the resettlement program are "discharged to sponsors who are either family members, or, in some cases, friends or family."

That leaves only 4% of the children now in the care of the federal government that will need foster care.

Weaver says if nobody steps forward to take custody of the child, he/she then becomes eligible for long-term foster care in homes across the country.

Generally speaking, those kids actually have a pretty good chance of staying in the country: through foster care, they can have access to legal representation, and argue that they were neglected or abandoned by their families.

Weaver says she's seen orphans before, including one boy who lived with his uncle for a time, until the uncle decided he couldn't take care of the boy and paid a smuggler to take him into the U.S.

These child migrants are held by the Border Patrol for 72 hours, then turned over to a temporary shelter or group home, until a parent or guardian is located.

After that, those kids no longer have any access to counseling or medical services provided by the shelter, legal representation, or federal and state monies.

Critics say this process still takes too long, and is too expensive.

In any case, Doug Mosier, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection based in El Paso, says the situation may be turning around.

"Fortunately, it appears the numbers have gone down somewhat," he says. "I think it's too early to declare any kind of trend, but we are hopeful that it is starting to taper off."

- Paige Phelps