SAN DIEGO — With more than 20,000 unaccompanied minors in the custody of U.S. officials — both at the border and in holding areas throughout the Southwest - what was already a crisis may now be a crime scene.

There are serious allegations that some of the children being held at detention facilities have been sexually assaulted.

Let the horror sink in. Here you have thousands of children who fled cutthroat countries in Central America where ruthless gangs use threats of rape to terrorize people. They traveled more than 1,000 miles to the United States seeking a safe haven. Instead, they're allegedly crammed into detention facilities with insufficient food or water but plenty of exposure to COVID-19. And, then, they're just vulnerable enough to be at risk of being sexually assaulted by predators.

We don't yet know of these allegations are true, but I have no doubt that they are. There are disgusting creeps on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Just who is alleged to have committed these atrocities is also not yet clear. It could be anyone.

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Either way, Uncle Sam would be on the hook. That's because the second that immigration officials took custody of these migrant children, the U.S. federal government became their de-facto legal guardian. Uncle Sam is responsible for their well-being. It's up to him to keep these children safe, protected and cared for until officials can decide what to do with them.

The ghastly possibility that children who are detained in U.S. custody have been sexually assaulted will shock absolutely no one who covered the border crisis in 2014 that entangled President Obama, or the one in 2018 that confounded President Trump. Both times, there were many such allegations of children being sexually assaulted. We have been here before, and we will likely be here again.

Yet, these allegations are also a reminder that, of all the options available to the bumbling Biden Administration about how to handle unaccompanied minors who cross the U.S.-Mexico border — and this administration has tried plenty of them — the absolute worst option of all is to warehouse these children in U.S. custody for longer than the 72 hours allowed by law.

Officials should quickly process these children, put ankle bracelets on them and hand them over to the adult guardians who were supposed to take custody on this side of the border.

After all, for a child, languishing in the custody of U.S. officials can be dangerous. The longer this goes on, the greater the odds that bad things happen.

One person who wants to get to the bottom of what happened - albeit solely for political reasons — is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The Republican has standing in the matter because some of the alleged attacks took place at the Freeman Coliseum facility in San Antonio, which now houses more than 1,300 migrant children. Abbott claims that — in addition to allegations of sexual assault — his office has received complaints alleging at least three other forms of child abuse: an insufficient number of staffers to care for children, children not eating, and a failure to keep children who test positive for COVID-19 away from other children. The governor wants the facility closed, and he has ordered the Texas Rangers to investigate the abuse allegations.

Now we're talking. Good on Abbott. Of course, he was silent back in 2018 when similar allegations arose during the Trump years. Of course, he is a hypocrite and a hack. But given how corrupt our political system is with everyone so eager to cover up for the captains of their respective teams, Abbott may also be these kids' only hope of getting justice, getting help and getting to safety.

If Democrats object to Abbott taking the lead on this issue, they are free to join the fight and defend these kids on their own. If they're not prepared to do that because they don't want to embarrass or get sideways with a Democratic administration and a Democratic president, that's on them.

Democrats need to put up or shut up. Given how badly they performed the last time they were in this kind of tight spot — during the 2014 crisis, under Obama — I'd prefer the latter.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at

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