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WASHINGTON – They’re on the run from gangs or family violence, or because their parents paid smugglers to take them away – even though some of them are at an age when they ought to sent off to elementary school.

Then they travel for more than a thousand miles through the Mexican jungles and deserts that separate Central America from the United States, often riding on the tops of rail cars.

They arrive bedraggled at the Rio Grande, where they swim or ride rubber tires toward the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And as soon as they arrive, they look for a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

“You have to realize that most of these kids want to get caught,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said Tuesday at a House hearing on the burgeoning crisis of unaccompanied alien children flooding into the United States. “They will run to the nearest officer and say, ‘Here I am.’ ”

And here they are, about 52,000 of them since last October alone, with more arriving at the southern border every day.

What seemed like a faraway problem arrived in Western New York last week, as federal agents mistakenly scouted out a fully occupied Grand Island hotel as a possible refuge for some of those homeless children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

It was all a big mix-up, but it pointed to a hard fact: With thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving every day – and a bipartisan 2008 law requiring that the U.S. shelter them – the federal government is overwhelmed.

“Shelters have been established, like the one at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, R-Texas. “We’ve all seen the photos of hundreds of children piled on top of each other, and the flow shows no signs of abating.”

It’s a problem years in the making, and a story best told by the children themselves, as some of them did in a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Gangs in a nearby neighborhood wanted to kill me and some other people,” said David, a 16-year-old from Guatemala. “They wanted me to give them money, but what money was I supposed to give them? I didn’t have any.”

“In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags,” said Maritza, 15, who fled that country. “My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there.”

“My grandmother wanted me to leave,” said Kevin, 17, of Honduras – which has the highest murder rate in the world.

“She told me: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you.’ ”

The U.N. agency interviewed 404 unaccompanied alien children at the U.S. border, and found that 192 of them cited violence in their home countries as a reason for fleeing. Eighty-four of them cited abuse at home, while 64 mentioned deprivation.

Digging down deeper, the U.N. interviewers found that a majority of the children would qualify for protection as refugees.

“Our data reveals that no less than 58 percent of the 404 children interviewed were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection,” the U.N. report said.

The children came, in almost equal numbers, from four countries: El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, countries that share a common crisis fed by drug cartels and smuggling cartels and criminal gangs.

“These countries are violent, and they’re often run by corrupt figures who are influenced by the drug cartels,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who is familiar with the issue through his work on the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees. “These are places that have been bad for a long time, and I think they’re getting worse, with more violence in the streets.”

But to hear Republicans tell it, the Obama administration is at least partly to blame for the flood of young immigrant runaways. They point to President Obama’s 2012 decision to stop deportation proceedings for undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country when they were young, a move that allowed upward of 800,000 young people to stay in the United States and work here. Republicans say that may have sent the wrong message.

“The president has been anything but clear and concise and firm about securing our borders,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

At Tuesday’s House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Johnson acknowledged that the Obama administration is combating an image in Central America that the United States is offering “free passes” to youngsters who arrive at the border.

“I also believe smuggling organizations are creating a misinformation campaign about the legal situation in this country,” he said. “It’s in their interest to create that misinformation. It is up to us to correct the record on what is available and what is not to those crossing the border.”

What is available, though, is protection, mandated by the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which was passed by the Democratic Congress and signed by Republican President George W. Bush in 2008.

Under that law, when federal agents capture an unaccompanied alien child at the border, agents have 72 hours to turn them over to family members or the Department of Health and Human Services for safekeeping while they await removal proceedings.

Such children must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” that 2008 law mandates.

The trouble is, no one envisioned 52,000 such children flooding the border in nine months, which is just what’s happened, prompting harrowing scenes at crowded detention centers and making it virtually impossible for HHS to accommodate those children within 72 hours.

With help from the Department of Homeland Security, HHS has been scouring the country, looking for space to serve as shelter for the new arrivals. Somehow that search last week led them to the Byblos Niagara Resort and Spa in Grand Island, where agents arrived expecting to find a vacant facility.

“We were quickly informed that it was an up-and-running, functioning, occupied hotel, so obviously it’s not a viable candidate for this situation,” Johnson said.

Higgins, who pressed Johnson on how the mix-up occurred, replied: “It just seems to me that some due diligence could have, should have been exercised here.”

In the grand scheme of things, though, the Grand Island mix-up is just a footnote to the larger drama playing itself out at the border.

“A lot of the kids fled because they are being targeted by gangs for gang recruitment, much like child soldiers in other parts of the world,” said Megan McKenna, communications and advocacy director for Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, which pairs the new arrivals with pro bono legal representation.

Others left because at their parents’ behest.

“Parents are handing over their young children by the thousands to cartels who are profiting by smuggling these kids to the U.S.” McCaul said. “Many are under the age of 10 – including some barely old enough to walk.”

Some, no doubt, aren’t strong enough to survive the journey, although Johnson said the U.S. government has no idea how many die en route from Central America to the United States.

Ironically, the children arriving at the Rio Grande are treading a well-trodden American path from deprivation to an uncertain future in a new but better land, noted Eva M. Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, which offers a refugee resettlement program.

“These kids are now going through what our Irish ancestors or our Italian ancestors went through,” Hassett said. “So we have to be compassionate about what’s happening here. It’s just a different time and a different set of circumstances now.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com