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DENVER – Droves of children are crossing the U.S. border without their parents. It has caused a national debate over immigration and whether these kids should be granted refugee status. But, there's one major question: why is this happening?

"They are at risk of abuse. They are at risk of death. They are living in a state of violence and crime every day," Dr. Liz Mendez-Shannon, professor of social work at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said.

Mendez-Shannon says conditions in countries across Central America have gotten so much worse that parents are sending their children alone to the United States out of desperation.

"There are gangs that are taking on the teens, coercing them to be a part of their violence and if not they are killing them," Mendez-Shannon said.

United States Customs and Border Protection is in charge of detaining children who have crossed the border illegally. The federal agency reports these numbers. Between October 2012 and October 2013 the number of children detained:

El Salvador - 5,990.
Guatemala - 8,068.
Honduras - 6,747
Mexico-17,240.

But, from October to June 2014, the numbers have shifted dramatically:

El Salvador-11, 436
Guatemala-12,670
Honduras-15,146
Mexico – 12,146

"The fact these parents are dealing with the violence in those countries, the gangs, the death every day, their choice is one from hopeless to having hope," Mendez-Shannon said.

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But, there are those who believe the increase in children crossing the border came from Washington D.C. In June 2012, President Barack Obama signed an order allowing Deferred Action to children across the country. That allowed them to avoid deportation as long as they arrived in the U.S. as a child and followed certain guidelines including not committing any serious crimes since being in the country.

Protesters around the border say that order sent a message to families across Central America that it is okay to send their children to America.

Immigration Attorney Jessica Kunevicius says that once these children get to the United States they face a different challenges in the court system.

"Do they have a valid asylum claim? Are they eligible for special immigrant juvenile status? Are they trafficking victims?" Kunevicius said.

She says another challenge is finding adequate legal representation. Kunevicius is part of the Colorado chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Her chapter is working on creating a way for attorneys like Kunevicius to represent some of these children for free.

"They're so young and they have no idea what their rights are and they do have a few eligibility options," Kunevicius said. "But, of course, without any idea of how the system Works, they are at a massive disadvantage."

Mendez-Shannon knows there are legal issues and political battles over all this. But, she does want to remind people of one thing. These are children who she says are just asking for help.

"They say it takes a community to raise a child, in this case, in this situation, it takes a global community," Mendez-Shannon said.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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