Telford told Aleteia that the perception in Central America is that the unaccompanied minors are welcome in the United States, and that they will be allowed to stay even if they arrive without legal documents. She noted the numbers have skyrocketed since Fiscal Year 2012, when the Obama administration issued its Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a directive that federal authorities show prosecutorial discretion for individuals who migrated to the United States as children without legal permission.
Prior to 2012, an average of 20,000 migrants – 6,000 of them children – from countries other than Mexico were apprehended by Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley. In 2012, that number spiked to 50,101 apprehensions, and almost doubled to 97,783 apprehensions last year. In Fiscal 2014, authorities predict there will be more than 126,374 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley.
Administration officials say that DACA does not apply to the minors who are now crossing the border, but Telford said the specific policy details are not reaching people in Central America.
"They’re coming here because they’re seeing people being allowed to stay, receiving benefits and going to public schools," said Telford, who describes herself as a practicing Catholic who disagrees with bishops who say the current "humanitarian crisis" is an argument for comprehensive immigration reform (which some critics see as amnesty).
"They’re basically saying that if you don’t allow amnesty and allow every poor person to come into this country, then you’re not a good Catholic," Telford said. "I find it outrageous that the Church is using donations to lobby on this political issue. People in the pews are not for amnesty. All the money they’ve spent have not budged the percentage of Catholics who support amnesty."
The polarized immigration debate is making it difficult for Catholic Charities USA to collect donations to meet the young migrants’ needs.
"If a hurricane were to hit, money would be pouring in for Catholic Charities’ operations," Burgo said. "But because this is not a natural disaster, and people can be so polarized over the issue of migration, we’re not seeing the donations coming in."
Despite the political debate, officials from several Catholic social relief agencies say the minors crossing the border have immediate humanitarian needs such as food, shelter, clothes, and medical care, not to mention intense spiritual and psychological support after the harrowing journey north through Mexico. Some children who ride the trains north are killed or maimed if they fall or are pushed off the trains. Many migrant children are also at the mercy of human smugglers, commonly known as "coyotes," who are increasingly affiliated with the cartels. The young girls are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape during the trek.
"Imagine walking with all the way from Central America by yourself, or with a smuggler you don’t know, with the violence and rape you may be subject to," Appleby said. "It’s a desperate situation. They wouldn’t be coming if it wasn’t worse where they live."
"The scars of the journey definitely don’t go away. As we develop a rapport with them, we hear about the difficulties, about the people they saw get hurt along the way, perhaps friends who didn’t finish the journey," said Lopez, whose agency provides immigration legal services in West Texas and Southern New Mexico.
However, the Obama administration’s policies, and the bishops’ public statements on immigration, aggravate the humanitarian crisis, Telford said.
"I don’t understand why they don’t see the trickle effect of telling people, ‘Come up, we welcome you,’" Telford said. "People die because you say that. Kids are orphaned because you say that."