Washington (AFP) - The number of unaccompanied children illegally entering the United States across its southern border spiked 49 percent over the past year, officials in Washington said on Monday.
The Department of Homeland Security reported that 56,692 children traveling without adults were intercepted at the US border with Mexico in the fiscal year ending in September, compared with 39,970 the previous year.
Overall, 408,870 adults and children were intercepted at the border, an increase of 23 percent over the previous year, according to the DHS.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the number of undocumented immigrants, while on the rise, is a fraction of the number entering the United States from the 1980s through 2008.
"The demographics of illegal migration on our southern border has changed significantly over the last 15 years," Johnson said in a statement.
"Far fewer Mexicans and single adults are attempting to cross the border without authorization, but more families and unaccompanied children are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America."
For the second time in three years, more Central Americans were caught at the border than Mexicans, the agency reported. The first time that happened was in 2014.
The increase in undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the country comes as the US boosts efforts with allies in Central America to stem the surge, which often is linked to poverty and gang-related violence in the home countries.
In 2014, the US, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador adopted an ambitious "Alliance for Prosperity" program aimed at curbing migration by improving conditions in Central America.
"Border security alone cannot overcome the powerful push factors of poverty and violence that exist in Central America. Walls alone cannot prevent illegal migration," Johnson said.
"Ultimately, the solution is long-term investment in Central America to address the underlying push factors in the region."
Johnson said the DHS has tried to enforce the immigration laws "in a fair and humane way."
"But, the reality is the system is broken, and badly in need of comprehensive immigration reform that only Congress can provide," he said.
Johnson also called for the creation of a path for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States to "get right with the law."
The DHS report comes three weeks ahead of the November 8 presidential election, with the immigration issue looming large -- particularly in the campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who has vowed to build a wall along the southwestern border and make Mexico pay for it.
Democrat Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has called for immigration reforms that could provide a pathway to legal status for many undocumented immigrants.