More than 52,000 minors have illegally entered the United States since October, with an additional 40,000 expected by the end of this year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
President Barack Obama Monday requested $2 billion from Congress for additional border security funding along with increased authority of immigration officials to expedite the deportation process. He has issued a plea to families in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to stop sending their children, who are entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
An estimated 40 to 60 percent of the children are escaping the recent surges in gang crime and domestic violence in their home countries, which are legitimate humanitarian claims that entitle them to apply for asylum relief, said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.
More than half of the children also seek to be reunited with their parents or other family members residing in the U.S., he said during a Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars briefing. Central American children who are captured by Border Patrol agents are often placed with their families for two to three years while they wait for a full immigration hearing, which is an added incentive for many children, Rosenblum said.
Nick Phillips, an El Salvador-based journalist who contributes to The New York Times, agreed that even a temporary placement with their families is enough incentive for some kids to make the dangerous crossing.
"One message that they've been getting is that Salvadoran kids who make it illegally to the United States can reunite with their parents and stick around the States for a while," said Phillips.
Others seek better education and job opportunities than those in their poverty-stricken home countries, said Julie López, a Guatemala-based journalist and expert on Central American criminal networks.
Though many parents encourage their children to flee, some are misinformed about how treacherous the journey is.
"Some of the parents...don't have a great grasp of how difficult it is and how dangerous it is to go through Mexico," López said. "And sometimes they rely on traffickers or people they know who are taking the journey, but that is really not a guarantee that their children will be arriving safely."
But some older children and teenagers decide to make the perilous journey themselves -- without parental input -- out of desperation for a better life, López said.