July 30, 2013 -- Although illegal border crossings have declined dramatically in recent years, more and more children are crossing the border alone.
Nearly 14,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended in U.S. and sent back to Mexico in 2012 alone, and nearly 25,000 unaccompanied children total were apprehended by U.S. border patrol in the same fiscal year. That's a 204% increase in such crossings from 2008.
So, why are so many kids coming to the U.S. alone?
Many do so to escape domestic abuse, political turmoil and human trafficking, while others are simply seeking to reunite with their family members already in the states, according to Wendy Young, the president of Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), an organization which provides pro-bono legal representation to unaccompanied minors.
"Kids don't just travel across international borders unless there is something wrong with their life," said Young.
The average age of an unaccompanied child in immigration custody is 14, the Women's Refugee Commission estimates. But many are much younger, like, Liliana Muñoz, a 6-year-old whose parents paid to have her smuggled into the U.S. because they feared drug cartel violence in their hometown of Tamaulipas.
After the 6-year-old was apprehended at the border, she was forced to represent herself in an immigration hearing -- because, like half of all unaccompanied minors in our system, she did not have a lawyer. Watch more about Muñoz's story here.
An estimated 40 percent of unaccompanied minors who were detained in federal shelters were eligible for some kind of legal immigration status, according to a report by the Vera Institute. But without representation, many don't know that they can be granted asylum or apply for a numerous types of visas.
Judge Bruce Einhorn, a retired U.S. immigration judge who oversaw children's immigration cases for nearly two decades, said last year that without lawyers most kids can't defend themselves.
"It's like dealing with someone in a boat in the middle of a lake with no guide and no oars," Einhorn said. "It's much easier for a child to have someone in the boat with them rowing."
But children aren't just coming from Mexico. Smaller Latin American nations plagued by violence and political unrest are also sending thousands of unaccompanied children each year.
Nearly 3,835 children from Guatemala, 2,997 from Honduras, and 3,314 from El Salvador were apprehended by U.S. border patrol, last year alone.