Crammed behind gates, leaning against each other -- the images of Central American youth crowded into U.S. Border Patrol facilities look like something Americans are accustomed to seeing in far-off lands as residents flee from civil wars or floods.
There's more than just an immigration problem at the U.S. southern border.
It is a refugee crisis, although not for the predictable reasons that some claim.
The crisis has been years in the making -- with the numbers of children crossing the border rising year after year as the mix of poverty, violence and corruption feeds desperation in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador -- a poverty-stricken hot spot of violence and drug trafficking.
Declaring it a humanitarian crisis, President Barack Obama set off a mad federal dash to deal with the ceaseless stream of child migrants -- expected to reach as many as 90,000 by the end of the year -- tapping the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a response.
Now there are overflow shelters in Texas, Oklahoma and Port Hueneme, California. And there are serious questions about how these children will be processed. Republicans were quick to pin some of the blame on Obama, who delayed deportations for immigrants brought to the United States as children and who -- despite setting records for deportations -- they say is weak on border security.
But those factors are hardly enough to motivate 15-year-olds to trek more than 1,800 miles.
A 2013 survey by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees of 404 minors from Central America and Mexico found nearly half of the children were fleeing violence, gangs and cartels.
Central America has become one of the most violent places in the world, stoked by the drug trade fueled by U.S. consumption and exacerbated by corrupt political and judicial systems. That violence centers on Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
All three have histories of violence, but the situation has been worsening in recent years as the countries have become drug transit routes and criminal organizations vie for territory. Honduras now has the world's highest murder rate, and the other two rank high.
Vice President Joe Biden carried a message to Central American leaders in Guatemala that youth should be discouraged from heading to the United States.
While that's a smart political move, it's unlikely to have much effect.
Of the children surveyed by the United Nations, only one said that U.S. immigration policy motivated him.
More than anything, the crisis will help the U.S. focus on Central America's problems, which have arrived at our doorstep.
The best the U.S. can do for right now is ensure these children are treated humanely.