Migrant Children Spend Weeks at U.S. Shelters as More Arrive

(AP ) -
In this July 2, 2021, file photo, children walk together at an emergency shelter for migrant children in Pomona, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool, File)

Five months after the Biden administration declared an emergency and raced to set up shelters to house a record number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, kids continue to languish at the sites, while more keep coming, child welfare advocates say.

More than 700 children spent three weeks or longer at the government’s unlicensed sites in mid-July, according to declarations filed with a federal court overseeing custody conditions for immigrant youth. Advocates say children should be released quickly to their relatives in the U.S. or sent to a licensed facility.

When the Biden administration erected the emergency sites in March to ease dangerous overcrowding at border stations, they were meant to be a temporary fix. But months later, some wonder whether that’s still the case.

Border crossings by children without an adult in July neared the same levels they did in March despite the summer heat.

“If you have a dinner party that you plan to have for three people, and 30,000 people show up, you’re going to have a problem,” U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, who oversees the decades-old settlement agreement that governs custody conditions for the children, said at a recent hearing.

“The infrastructure is not set up for tens of thousands of people coming in at one time, and somehow the paradigm has to shift to figure out how to deal with these types of numbers.”

U.S. border authorities reported more than 18,000 encounters with unaccompanied immigrant children in July, up 24% from a month earlier. The rise comes in the busiest month yet for the Biden administration on the border, with a total of nearly 200,000 encounters even though crossings are typically expected to slow during the summer.

According to a government report in early August, the Department of Health and Human Services had nearly 15,000 children in its care but only 11,000 licensed shelter beds for the immigrant children. Using large-scale facilities can fill this gap, though advocates said the government would do better by expanding licensed shelters where children are given case workers, recreation and six hours of education on each weekday.

The Department of Health and Human Services is tasked with caring for the children until they can be sent to live with relatives or other sponsors in the United States while they wait for an immigration judge to decide whether they can stay in the country legally. While the agency has a broad network of state-licensed shelters that could be expanded, ample space in foster care programs and large, so-called influx care facilities that adhere to specific standards for staffing and conditions, it continues to turn to these emergency sites.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services did not answer questions from The Associated Press.

The Obama and Trump administrations also opened temporary facilities when there was a jump in children crossing the border alone, but the numbers were not near what the Biden administration has seen.

Once the coronavirus appeared, the Trump administration largely shut down the Southwest border to asylum seekers under a pandemic-related measure, turning away many immigrants. Then, in November, a federal judge ordered the administration to stop expelling unaccompanied children under the policy.

Two months later, President Joe Biden took office and the number of immigrant children seeking to cross began to rise. Shelters for immigrant youth were still running at reduced capacity due to coronavirus concerns, and the Department of Health and Human Services was suddenly strapped for space to house them.