HOUSTON - The tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have come across the Mexican border into the US state of Texas in recent months seeking refuge from violence and poverty represent not only a legal problem -- but a humanitarian challenge for government officials and private charities in border cities. The crisis is likely to continue for many more months.
The influx of immigrants from Central America has been driven by the belief that if children get to the US, they will be granted immediate refugee status. While that's not true, U.S. law does require that minors from countries that don't border the U.S. cannot be sent home without a deportation hearing.
Former Border Patrol agent Carl Henderson said processing asylum seekers has stretched the patrol's limited resources.
"Do they need more resources? Yes. Will that stop what is going on now? No, of course not, because these people are not trying to elude the Border Patrol, they are coming across and turning themselves in," he said.
Henderson said the US does not provide children with immediate asylum, but the processing of most cases takes months -- during which time the children and any adult family member with them can remain.
"Agents I know now tell me they are having a lot of pseudo-families, pretend families. A guy is coming up and he runs into some children coming up and he says, 'Here is the deal: I will be your uncle or your dad and this way we all get released,'" said Henderson.
In the border city of McAllen, local churches, charities and government agencies are helping immigrants who have been released while awaiting a court hearing. A Catholic nun, Sister Norma, oversees operations.
"Ever since day one we had over 200 people that we helped and from then on, every day, it is 100, 150, 200 people that we help every single day differently," she said.
The city of McAllen alone could spend more than half a million dollars on this emergency by the end of the year.
Political Science professor Mark Jones at Houston's Rice University said immigration is a federal matter, and local governments therefore will seek reimbursement.
"All of them are going to be sending bills to President Obama, what we have to see, though, is whether the president will be paying those bills or will cities like McAllen, counties like Cameron and Hidalgo in the state of Texas, be stuck with the bill," said Jones.
The president's request for nearly four billion dollars in emergency funding is tied up in politics. But Jones said even with those funds, the government is likely to lose track of children who have been processed.
"The federal government does not have the resources nor does it want to spend the resources tracking children. It wants to spend its limited resources, say, looking for felons who are here illegally," he said.
Jones said immigration courts are overwhelmed and until there is an overall reform of the system, they may get little relief.