EDINBURG, Texas (KVEO) — In the past two months alone, U.S. Border Patrol agents have found more than 3,500 unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.
This data shows a sharp increase from just a few months ago.
“We had a group that was comprised of children, we had a 1-year-old, two 3-year-olds, a 7-year-old and a 12-year-old,” said Lloyd Easterling, Deputy Chief Patrol Agent in Charge of the Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector.
That group of children was found alone in the middle of the night in 30-degree weather. But, why the increase? Agents say it’s a tactic.
“It’s heart-wrenching. … It’s another one of those times, that it’s so alarming children that young would be out there put in the elements, but we see it,” Easterling said.
Easterling says these children are arriving in family groups, then they’re caught with their families and they are sent back across the border.
“Next thing you know they end up on the riverbank with a phone number on their shirt. Two or three days after we catch them, we catch the same parent we found them with last time, but with a different group, so we’re seeing separation happening by themselves to improve of their chances across the border,” Easterling explained.
Some of the youngest children found wandering alone are just months old. Easterling says agents routinely see toddlers, 1-, 2- and sometimes 3-year-olds. Sometimes, these children are seen in the care of their older siblings, who are not much older at 8 or 9 years old.
“Within those groups are criminal people, sex predators and that’s why it’s such a huge issue for us to see these poor children out there,” Easterling said. “First of all, it’s heart-wrenching, and secondly, they’re held in stash houses with people they don’t know and health issues that could accompany that.”
And agents say this is only the beginning as they’re anticipating more unaccompanied children and family units.
“With all the talk of DACA and amnesty, that’s one thing the smugglers are using, that language to draw people in to make money. They don’t care what happens afterwards and that’s the worst part about it. We’re beginning to see family units rise; we anticipate that’s going to be trending up quickly. The numbers may not show right now, but what we see on a day-to-day basis is an increase and we are beginning to see a trend of family units more and more, and, given everything we believe is coming, we think that number will correspond up,” said Easterling.
It’s an upward trend not only in the Rio Grande Valley, but in other border regions as well.
Last week, Border Patrol agents from Tucson, Arix., found three toddlers wandering the border alone in triple-digit heat.
Agents are trained for these types of situations and say they are always keeping an eye out for those who can’t take care of themselves.
“Usually, that 2-year-old will be in a group of strangers — they could be a smuggler or a stranger that the smuggler told, ‘take them with you’. Sometimes, agents encounter a 2-year-old or a tender age toddler out on the river or out on the road alone and the first thing we do is make sure they’re OK, healthy. Once they get to a facility, a caregiver, a contract worker responds to them and checks them medically and then we get that child in a facility to get them the best care,” Easterling said.
Usually, if an unaccompanied child is found by U.S. Border Patrol and they’re medically cleared, they are then transferred to the U.S. Office of Refugee and Resettlement where they are then placed in facilities throughout the country, until either claimed by a family member or the federal government decides where they are housed. However, since March, border agents have expelled 200,000 immigrant adults and children citing the pandemic and a need to prevent the spread of the virus. At least 8,800 unaccompanied children have been expelled without having a chance to seek asylum protections or speak to a lawyer, according to Associated Press figures.
The most recent child found alone at the border was last Thursday.
The Associated Press contribute to this story.