The startling increase in gang violence in Central America in the past few years has been accompanied by skyrocketing numbers of children crossing the border illegally into the United States.
The Office of Refugee Settlement released this year's numbers in its annual report last week: 24,668 "unaccompanied alien children" were placed in their care, double the number of the previous year.
Chris Crane, heads of the ICE Council immigration officer union, said agents are being "overrun" with child border-crossers.
"We can't keep up with it," he told Fox News.
A Mother Jones report cites a major factor of "the surge" as the sharp increase in gang-related violence and recruitment in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which have seen the highest numbers of children fleeing for America. Mexico's numbers of child refugees, by contrast, have not significantly changed.
"What's alarming is that there's an increasing number saying they're fleeing forcible gang recruitment and gang violence," Elizabeth Kennedy, a San Diego State University researcher who studies unaccompanied child migrants, told Mother Jones.
"They were being forcibly recruited into the gangs and didn't want to be a part of it, and so they had to flee because threats had been made on them or their family members."
The 2012 Women's Refugee Commission report on the surge stated: "Until conditions for children in these countries change substantially, we expect this trend will be the new norm."
Child refugees are placed in ORR-run shelters, largely hidden to the outside world. In 2013, 80 shelters housed the 24,668 unaccompanied children who crossed the border, mostly in states that border Mexico. The children risk being sent back to the countries from which they fled, with little access to legal representation or support for the PTSD many suffer. Those who are united with family members in the U.S. are still at constant risk of deportation, as well as human trafficking and abuse from their employers.
Meanwhile, a Texas judge has accused the Department of Homeland Security of helping smuggle children across the border. Parents sometimes pay smugglers to lead children through treacherous conditions to the relative safety of the United States. When Customs and Border Protection agents find them, they often deliver the children to parents who are living, usually illegally, in the U.S. The judge claims that reuniting the children with their parents encourages illegal smuggling operations and cross-border drug cartels.
"The big economic losers in this scenario are the citizens of the United States who, by virtue of this DHS policy, are helping fund these evil ventures with their tax dollars," the judge wrote.
Minors who do make it to the U.S. illegally can petition for legal status in some cases, citing abuse, abandonment, or persecution in their home country.