WASHINGTON – Thousands of migrant children are supported in US detention centers along the border with Mexico, as part of a wave of Central American immigration fleeing poverty and violence that could overwhelm the attempt President Biden to create a more humane approach for those seeking to enter the country. the country.
The number of migrant children in detention along the border has tripled in the past two weeks to more than 3,250, according to federal immigration agency documents obtained by The New York Times, and many of them they are held in prison-like facilities for more than the three days permitted by law.
The problem for the administration is both the number of children crossing the border and what to do with them once they are in detention. Under the law, children are supposed to be transferred to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, but due to the pandemic, shelters until last week limited the number of children they have. they could accommodate.
The growing number of unaccompanied children is just one part of a growing problem at the border. Border officers met a migrant at the border about 78,000 times in January, more than double the rate at the same time a year ago and more than in January of the decade.
Immigration officials are expected to announce this week that there were nearly 100,000 apprehensions, including meetings at port entrances, in February, according to people familiar with the agency’s latest data. An additional 19,000 migrants, including adults and children, have been arrested by border officials since March 1.
“We’re at an inflection point,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, an independent research group. “How fast can the government treat people in a safe and humane way?”
The situation resembles the huge wave of migrant children that filled detention centers in 2014 and that preceded the harsh crackdown imposed by President Donald J. Trump. Seven years ago, Mr. Biden, the then vice president, visited Guatemala and said that “the current situation is untenable and unsustainable”.
Today, Mr Biden faces a migration challenge of his own – a challenge his administration has refused to call a “crisis” but which could nonetheless become a powerful political weapon for his Republican opponents and disrupt his efforts to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants.
The president proposed overhauling the decades-old immigration system by making it easier for asylum seekers and refugees, expanding legal avenues for foreign workers, increasing opportunities for family immigration and drastically reducing threats of mass evictions. His State Department announced Monday that foreigners rejected after Jan. 20, 2020 under Mr. Trump’s travel ban could try to obtain visas without paying additional fees.
But his approach – to widely reopening the country’s borders to vulnerable children with what he hopes will be a welcoming contrast to Mr. Trump’s erection of legal and physical barriers – is already threatened by the grim realities of the migration patterns that have rocked the world ever since. years. Sensing a change in tone and approach after Mr. Trump’s defeat, migrants once again flee poverty, violence and hurricane devastation and head north to the United States.
Hundreds of migrant families are also being released in the United States after being apprehended at the border, sparking predictable attacks from conservatives.
Liberal politicians denounce the expansion of detention centers and oppose the continued imposition of Trump-era rules aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus by immigrants. And advocates for families separated at the border under Mr. Trump’s administration are pressuring the president to act faster to reunite them.
Together, this put Mr. Biden on the defensive early in his presidency as he tries to show a tone very different from that of his predecessor.
The immigration system Mr Biden envisioned will take months, if not years, to be fully implemented, forcing the administration to scramble to find space for the children and lean on, for the moment, on a rule that quickly sends adults and most families back to their home countries. .
For now, Mr Biden has broken with his predecessor by not applying the pandemic emergency rule to children, which means the United States is still responsible for taking care of them until that they are placed with a sponsor.
More than 1,360 of the children held at border facilities have been jailed longer than the 72-hour maximum allowed by law, despite having been returned for homeland security sheltering, according to one of the documents dated Monday. One hundred sixty-nine of children are under 13.
The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that the number of children in its care was constantly changing. The Homeland Security Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services typically house around 13,600 young migrants, but until Friday space was limited due to measures taken to deal with the pandemic. As of Sunday, the health agency had more than 8,100 unaccompanied minors in its shelters, putting the system 13 days away from its “maximum capacity target,” according to the documents.
The Biden administration has already opened an emergency influx center for children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, a shelter whose use under the Trump administration has faced backlash.
Criticism is coming from all sides even as the president tries to navigate the narrowest margins to push a one-generation immigration bill through Congress. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said that keeping families in detention in a tent “is not OK, has never been OK, will never be OK.”
And Republicans are already signaling that they plan to put the consequences of Mr. Biden’s immigration program at the center of their efforts to take over Congress in 2022.
They highlighted Mr Biden’s decision to gradually welcome asylum seekers who were forced to wait in Mexico for months as part of a Trump-era program. Mr Trump, who harnessed the power of anti-immigrant sentiment during his 2016 campaign, warned last week in a dazzling statement of a “spiraling border tsunami” and predicted that “immigrants illegals from all over the world would descend on our border and never be returned.
Mr Biden, briefed on the matter last week, deployed his senior administration officials to visit border facilities over the weekend. The administration has made disaster relief funds available to border communities, redirected officials from the northern border to the southern border, and is considering a pilot program that would place health officials at border facilities to speed up the search for a sponsor by children.
Anticipating the arrival of even more children at the border, the administration on Friday ordered the shelters to regain their full capacity despite the pandemic.
Representative Bennie Thompson, the Democrat from Mississippi who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas told him during a call last Friday that the administration was rushing to find more space for the children. “You can’t just say we’re out of space,” Thompson said. “You have to start looking.”
During the campaign, Mr Biden supported the abandonment of detention of the migrants and instead released them to the United States and followed them with an ankle monitor or periodic phone calls while their cases were processed. immigration. The administration drew up a plan that would eventually release families from long-term detention centers within 72 hours.
But for now, using the same pandemic rule as the Trump administration, the Biden administration has continued to refuse most migrants other than unaccompanied children.
And almost as soon as Mr. Biden took office, senior administration officials publicly sought to discourage migrants from traveling north, saying it would take time to unravel Mr. Trump’s policies. Previous public messaging campaigns, including notice boards in Central America to encourage migrants to stay at home, have failed.
“In reality, we are addressing a population of desperate people,” Mayorkas said in an interview. “It won’t work 100%, but if it is effective at all, it is of utmost importance not only for what we are trying to do, but also for the well-being of the people.”
Some families are released in the United States. Border officials have been unable to refuse migrant families in South Texas due to a change in Mexican law that bans the detention of young children.
Administration officials report a wave of ongoing actions aimed at correcting what they say is a broken immigration system: improving communications between the border patrol and the health department, including whether children transported to long-term centers are boys or girls; streamline background checks for shelter workers; and vaccinate border residents against the coronavirus.
They are also speeding up efforts to create new facilities to support children for the weeks and months needed to find parents or foster parents. They envision unused school buildings, military bases and federal facilities that could quickly be converted into acceptable places for children.
And they are relaunching a program in Central America that will allow children to seek asylum without making the dangerous journey to the border. Mr Trump ended the program, which officials in the Biden administration said would ultimately reduce the flow of migrant children to the United States.
But all of this will take time. Meanwhile, officials say, they recognize that the pressure on Mr Biden will only increase.
“Every step of the way we look at where the bottlenecks are and then try to remove those bottlenecks and yes that won’t be resolved by tomorrow,” said Esther Olavarria, Deputy Director from immigration to the domestic policy of the White House Council. “But if you don’t start doing each of these things, you’ll never solve the problem.”
Annie karni and Maggie Haberman contribution to reports.