New Migrant Facilities Crop up to Ease Crowding, Again

(AP) -
A young child walks alone through the brush after being smuggled across the Rio Grande river in Roma, Texas. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, File)

For the third time in seven years, U.S. officials are scrambling to handle a dramatic spike in children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, leading to a massive expansion in emergency facilities to house them as more kids arrive than are being released to close relatives in the United States.

More than 22,000 migrant children are in government custody as of Thursday, with 10,500 sleeping on cots at convention centers, military bases and other large venues likened to hurricane evacuation shelters with little space to play and no privacy. More than 2,500 are being held by border authorities in substandard facilities.

The government failed to prepare for a big increase in children traveling alone as President Joe Biden ended some of his predecessor’s hardline immigration policies and decided he wouldn’t quickly expel unaccompanied kids from the country like the Trump administration did for eight months.

So many children are coming that there’s little room in long-term care facilities, where capacity shrank significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, minors are packed into Border Patrol facilities not meant to hold them longer than three days or they’re staying for weeks in the mass housing sites that often lack the services they need. Lawyers say some have not seen social workers who can reunite them with family in the U.S.

“As it currently stands with a lot of these emergency intake sites, children are going in and there’s no way out,” said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law. “They’re complete dead ends.”

Both Donald Trump and Barack Obama faced similar upticks in Central American children crossing the border alone in 2019 and 2014. The numbers have now reached historic highs amid economic fallout from the pandemic, storms in Central America and the feeling among migrants that Biden is more welcoming than his predecessor.

The Trump administration had predicted the strain on capacity, documents show. Projections from a former top official in the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which cares for migrant children until they’re reunited with family, said the agency would run out beds by mid-January or early February. On Feb. 22, the Biden administration reopened a tent facility used during previous increases as smaller shelters ran out of beds.

The Border Patrol encountered 18,663 unaccompanied children in March, the highest monthly total on record, well above previous highs of 11,475 in May 2019 and 10,620 in June 2014.

The number of children in custody rose after eight months of expulsions that began in March 2020, when Trump invoked a section of an obscure public health law amid the pandemic. More than 15,000 unaccompanied children were expelled between April and November last year, according to government figures.

In response to a 2019 uptick in crossings, the Trump administration had increased the number of beds in small and medium-size shelters that are better prepared to handle family reunifications — to 13,000 by early 2020.

But pandemic restrictions brought down actual capacity to 7,800 beds by November, said Mark Greenberg, who was acting assistant secretary for the Administration of Children and Families at U.S. Health and Human Services during Obama’s second term and part of Biden’s transition team. A February government tally had it at 7,100 beds.

“Throughout 2020, they didn’t rebuild capacity,” Greenberg said of the Trump administration. “For much of last year, the number of children in custody was very low, and they had 8,000 available beds, and the government was expelling children at the border. It was in that context that they didn’t rebuild the loss of supply.”

During the last months of Trump’s term, unaccompanied minors were allowed to stay after a federal judge ruled in November that the government couldn’t use the pandemic as a reason to expel them. In January, an appeals court said the government could resume the practice, but Biden decided against it.

The numbers quickly rose under Biden, who ended other Trump policies, including one that made asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for court hearings in the U.S.

Recent federal court filings show the problems that Health and Human Services faces as the number of children rises.

The challenge “will likely increase in severity in the coming weeks and months,” Cindy Huang, director of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, wrote last week. She said the agency is prioritizing moving children out of border authorities’ custody, relying on the growing network of large emergency venues run by private contractors.