U.S. migrant child shelters close to maximum capacity as border crossings increase
The increasing numbers of migrant children detained along the southern border in recent days has put a severe strain on the U.S. government’s ability to house them, according to CBS News.
Last week, US border officials arrested more than 1,500 migrant children, according to government statistics from CBS News. Another 300 minors were arrested on Sunday.
Due to the steady increase in border crossings by unaccompanied children, almost 90% of the 8,000 available beds administered by the federal agency charged with accommodating these minors are occupied. On Monday, the number of children housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), reached 7,100, leaving fewer than 900 empty beds.
The surge has alarmed government officials, shelters and lawyers concerned they can address one of their main problems: children spending extended periods in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities, most of which are designed to take in migrants to adults.
“We are absolutely concerned,” an HHS official, who asked for anonymity, told CBS News. “We are reviewing all of our options on the table to make sure we are able to accommodate and take care of children and make sure they don’t get into CBP custody.”
Under US law, CBP is required to return most unaccompanied children to the refugee office within three days of their incarceration. As of Friday, around 750 unaccompanied children were in CBP custody awaiting placement in facilities monitored by the refugee office, a person familiar with the number told CBS News.
According to CBS News, at least 179 migrant children spent more than three days in CBP facilities in January, despite internal guidelines requiring all migrants, especially minors, to be released within 72 hours. More than 45 of them were held for 10 days. In December, at least 48 minors had been in CBP detention for more than three days.
“CBP facilities are designed to process adult men and are fundamentally unsuitable for children to stay for any length of time,” Neha Desai, an attorney representing immigrant minors in a class action lawsuit, told CBS News.
Migrants have referred to these facilities as “hieleras” or freezers because of the cold temperatures there and “perreras” because of their resemblance to dog kennels.
Desai said she feared overcrowding could reach levels not seen since 2019 when border stations caught national attention based on reports of families and children wrapped in cinder block cells.
“Less than two years ago, I received a call in the middle of the night about a critically ill baby in a crowded CBP facility. The facility had a strong stench and an overwhelming number of children who were scared, sick and filthy,” added Desai added.
In January, the Refugee Office welcomed more than 4,000 migrant children, compared to the 39 minors it housed in its shelters in May 2020 when the U.S. government expelled most cross-border commuters, regardless of age, from the centers for control due to a pandemic edict and Disease Prevention (CDC).
CBP recorded 5,900 unaccompanied minors arrests and 7,500 parents and children along the US-Mexico border last month. These numbers have not been seen since July 2019 or January 2020. However, the numbers remain below the historic monthly highs in May 2019, when U.S. border officials processed 11,000 unaccompanied minors and 88,000 parents and children.
While most single adults and families continue to be expelled under the Trump-era CDC regulation, the Biden administration worked out an exception for unaccompanied minors after an appeals court overturned a November decision by a federal judge blocking the practice would have.
The policy change formalized by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky earlier this month means that border officials will refer most unaccompanied children to the refugee agency in the future.
While the move was praised by supporters, the refugee agency had to look for ways to expand its bed capacity, which was reduced due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. The office has more than 13,200 taxpayer-funded beds but can currently use fewer than 8,000 of them.
“We don’t know how many children will come in the coming days, weeks or months, so we need to ensure that our contingency plans include preparing for more bed space than we think is necessary.” said the HHS officer.
A newly opened inflow facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, was scheduled to accommodate more than 200 teenage migrants on Monday. The refugee agency also plans to provide about 700 additional government-licensed beds in shelters across the country over the next three months, the HHS official said.
Another tributary facility in Homestead, Florida could also be reopened. “Any reopening of this facility will include more kid-friendly spaces for sleep, rest, education and greater transparency,” the HHS official said. “It won’t just go back to previous facilities and how they looked in previous years.”
The HHS official said the refugee agency was also working to get children out of custody as soon as possible – a task made difficult by the fact that minors are being tested for the coronavirus. The agency is tasked with placing unaccompanied children with verified godparents, who are typically family members in the United States.
Three animal shelter operators, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about their work with the federal government, expressed concern about the dwindling sleeping space for migrant children and said the refugee agency was facing significant logistical challenges.
A shelter operator noted that the increase in crossings was partly due to the Trump administration’s policy of evicting unaccompanied children and said this has created a backlog of minors waiting to seek asylum in the U.S.
“It created a bubble that bursts because you can now get in,” said the shelter official.
The HHS official said the Biden administration was determined to allow migrant children to seek forms of humanitarian refuge enshrined in US law and called its approach “completely different” from that of the Trump administration.
“It is their legal right to seek protection,” said the officer, later adding, “We must treat these children as we would like our own children to be treated.”
In a statement, CBP said it was working “in close coordination” with the refugee agency to release unaccompanied minors from their custody. The White House made no comment.
While the Biden administration has pledged to rebuild asylum processing capacity along the southern border, senior White House and Homeland Security officials have made a concerted effort over the past few weeks to warn potential migrants that they will be quickly evicted from US soil when migrating north.
However, a Central American government official working on border affairs said the message is being distorted by misleading sales pitches by smugglers telling impoverished families that the border is now open under President Biden.
“The information people are getting is ‘you can come now,'” the official, who was not allowed to speak publicly, told CBS News. “Today the message from the coyotes is that families and children can crossbreed.”