In the early 2000s, Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas were accustomed to encountering a few hundred children attempting to cross the American border alone each month. Some hoped to sneak into the country unnoticed; others readily presented themselves to officials in order to request asylum. The agents would transport the children, who were exhausted, dehydrated, and sometimes injured, to Border Patrol stations and book them into austere concrete holding cells. The facilities are notoriously cold, so agents would hand the children Mylar blankets to keep warm until federal workers could deliver them to child-welfare authorities.
But starting in 2012, the number of children arriving at the border crept up, first to about 1,000 a month, then 2,000, then 5,000. By the summer of 2014, federal officials were processing more than 8,000 children a month in that region alone, cramming them into the same cells that had previously held only a few dozen at a time, and that were not meant to hold children at all.
As the stations filled, the Obama administration scrambled to find a solution. The law required that the children be moved away from the border within 72 hours and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, so they could be housed safely and comfortably until they were released to adults willing to sponsor them. But HHS facilities were also overflowing. The department signed new contracts for “emergency-influx shelters,” growing its capacity by thousands of beds within a matter of months. Government workers pulled 100-hour weeks to coordinate logistics. And then, seemingly overnight, border crossings began to drop precipitously. No one knew exactly why.