ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. There is a crisis on the Mexican-American border. Record numbers of unaccompanied Central American children are crossing the Rio Grande into South Texas. The numbers have overwhelmed the Border Patrol's limited holding facilities so today Vice President Joe Biden is in Guatemala meeting with regional leaders. They're discussing underlying economic and security problems at the root of this massive migration. NPR's John Burnett reports that even in a region accustom to immigrant surges, no one has ever seen anything like this.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Like a marathoner at the end of a grueling race, young Jorge Romero sits on the ground fatigued, 100 yards from the Rio Grande. He's been detained by a county constable. For a month, the 16-year-old from El Salvador traveled through Mexico avoiding predatory police and gangs, warding off mosquitoes and hunger.

JORGE ROMERO: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Looking like he's on the verge of tears, Jorge explains how waiting across the international river at the tip of Texas, then wandered for a day looking for a boarder officer to surrender to. Like most young migrants, he gives a push-pull explanation for the journey. He left Central America to avoid conscription by street gangs and to join his family in the U.S.

ROMERO: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: In a way, I feel good because I arrived at my destination, he says smiling wanly. If God wills it, I'll get political asylum. I don't want to return to El Salvador. What to do with Jorge Romero and others like him has become a burden for the U.S. government because he's under age and he's from a noncontiguous country, he cannot be treated like an adult or promptly deported. More than 50,000 unaccompanied migrant kids have been detained in the last eight months, that's 100 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. In the Rio Grande Valley, currently the nation's crossing hotspot, the border patrol catches about 700 people a day, 20 percent of them are youngsters traveling alone, the rest are adults, some with children. You see them all day long at the central bus station in McAllen, waiting for transportation north to unite with their families. Often, they're young mothers like Osiris Sandoval from Honduras who has a rambunctious 2-year-old.

OSIRIS SANDOVAL: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: An hour ago, the Border Patrol finished processing Sandoval and dropped her off at the bus terminal. She says agents kept 50 to 60 people in a single holding room for four days. She said it was so crowded they stood most of the time with their children in their arms. There was scarcely room to sit or to sleep. Border Patrol stations are simply not set up to handle this crush of detainees, says Chris Cabrera. He's vice president of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union.

CHRIS CABRERA: We're short-term hold facilities, we're not looking to hold anything more than, you know, one to two days - preferably 12 hours - and in some cases, we're hitting about 7 to 10 days holding some people.

BURNETT: The station does not have showers, a recreation area or proper bedding, so the idea is to process the detainees as quickly as possible then move the children to more welcoming shelters that are being opened around the country. From there, caseworkers try to find family members who can take care of them until they appear in immigration court. Chris Cabrera says agents want to be on the border catching lawbreakers, but they end up babysitting.

CABRERA: If we're going to catch these people and Border Patrol is going to do their part to enforce these laws, and then DHS is going to release them, then more people are going to come and you can't fixe this with enforcement and enforcement alone.

BURNETT: You have to change expectations. Immigrant kids think they can get political asylum if they say they were threatened by gangs at home. Thirty years ago, an earlier wave of Central Americans poured across the southern border fleeing the civil wars. They were asking for political asylum too. Sister Norma Pimental, head of Catholic Charities in the Brownsville Diocese, was there then and she's still helping today.

SISTER NORMA PIMENTAL: Before, we were seeing great numbers of families, mother, father, abuelito, you know, the little kids, everybody was coming as a family and entering our country. Here is unaccompanied children, it's amazing. So many children.

BURNETT: The wave of children from Central America who want to go north has created a business opportunity for some. A 25-year-old human smuggler who goes by the name El Lobo, the wolf, sits in an outdoor cafe on a rundown street in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the bridge from Brownsville. His specialty - smuggling children.

EL LOBO: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: From Honduras to Brownsville, it's $2,500. That's just to the border. The crossing is extra, he says, depending on their size, that will cost $1,000, $800 or $500 more. He says not all smugglers are bad, if you take care of your juvenile clients, make sure they're healthy, fed and sheltered, you get repeat business. Lobo is lean with a thin mustache, white teeth and flinty eyes. He asked that his real name not be used. His story was corroborated by a veteran Border Patrol agent and an immigrant advocate attorney, both of whom are familiar with the smuggling trade.

EL LOBO: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: If they're small, 3 or 4 years old, I cross them in inner-tubes one by one to make sure they don't fall out or drown, he says. It only takes a few minutes. He says his clients range in age from 2 to 13 years old. The little ones are usually not alone, he says, they're in the care of a relative who's also a minor. And why did he switch from smuggling adults to children across the Rio Grande?

EL LOBO: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Adults are different from children, El Lobo explains, an adult has to flee. But a child, you just deliver them to the other side of the river and they way to get themselves up to the Border Patrol, it makes our job easier. John Burnett, NPR News.

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