Miami-Dade County

South Florida third in nation in accepting unaccompanied Central American minors

Twelve-year-old Kevin Mejía has enrolled at Brownsville Middle School, two months after crossing the Mexican border following a trip from his native Honduras.

He is among more than 1,000 Central American minors who have crossed the border in an unprecedented surge this year and have been enrolled or will be enrolled in local public schools, according to Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado.

Kevin is also among tens of thousands of immigrant minors who have been placed with parents, family members and other sponsors throughout the nation between Jan. 1 and July 31.

South Florida ranks third among the nation’s metropolitan areas with the highest number of Central American minors placed with sponsors, chiefly parents and other relatives, according to the latest federal government figures.

Harris County, which includes Houston, has the largest number, with 2,866 minors placed with families, followed by Southern California (including Los Angeles and San Diego) at 2,369, and then South Florida with 2,268 (including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties).

For the nation as a whole, the total was 29,890, according to the figures posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency in charge of the program.

Besides the top three regions, there are other important pockets of minors released to families. These include counties in Virginia, Maryland, New York, Georgia and North Carolina.

The locations reflect the historic destinations of Central American immigrants in the United States.

Civil wars, gang violence and natural disasters have fueled the dramatic growth in Central American communities in the United States over the last 50 years.

In 1960, less than 50,000 Central Americans resided in the country, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. Today, people born in Central America account for nearly eight percent or 3.1 million of the immigrant population, the study says. The numbers began to increase in 1980 and accelerated in 1990, a period coinciding with civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, as well major hurricanes and earthquakes.

According to the study, California had the largest number of Central American immigrants, more than 800,000, followed by Texas with more than 350,000 and Florida, with more than 320,000.

Francisco Portillo, president of Miami-based Francisco Morazán Honduran Organization, said the devastation left by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 propelled the first major migration wave from Honduras to South Florida. Since then, he added, more and more Hondurans have settled here.

Among the many families Portillo has helped is that of Kevin Mejia, whose mother — Darling Jorleny Mejia — is in Miami.

“Since 1980, due to the wars in Central America, many Central Americans, mainly from El Salvador and Guatemala, came to southern California,” said Leoncio Velazquez, president of Hondurans United of Los Angeles. “They came here because Los Angeles was one of the most-Latin cities in the United States. The Mexicans were here and the same trend occurred in Miami with the Cuban exiles being one of the reasons Central Americans went there.”

More than 66,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border so far this fiscal year, according to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s an 87.8 percent increase over arrivals last fiscal year.

While these figures are unprecedented, U.S. officials indicate that the flow of minors may be slowing.

The Associated Press said last week that the Border Patrol detained 3,129 minors in August, compared to 5,400 in July and 10,600 in June.