The growing number of migrant children in custody along the southern border in recent days has severely strained the U.S. government’s ability to house them, according to data obtained by CBS News.
Last week, U.S. border officials apprehended more than 1,500 migrant children, according to government statistics reviewed by CBS News. On Sunday, 300 additional minors were taken into police custody.
Due to the steady increase in the number of border crossings by unaccompanied children, nearly 90% of the 8,000 available beds administered by the federal agency responsible for the accommodation of 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 less than 900 empty beds.
The rise has alarmed government officials, shelter operators and advocates who are concerned about their ability to address one of their main common concerns: children spending long periods in customs and protection facilities. Borders (CBP), most of which were designed for adult migrants.
“We are absolutely concerned,” said an HHS official who requested anonymity from CBS News. “We are weighing all of our options on the table to make sure we have the capacity to house and care for the children and to make sure they are not being backed up in CBP custody.”
Under US law, CBP is required to transfer most unaccompanied children to the refugee office within three days of their detention. About 750 unaccompanied children were being held by CBP as they waited to be placed in facilities overseen by the refugee office, a person familiar with the number told CBS News.
According to data obtained by CBS News, at least 179 migrant children spent more than three days at CBP facilities in January, despite internal policy dictating that all migrants, especially minors, should be released within 72 hours. More than 45 of them were detained for more than 10 days. In December, at least 48 minors remained in CBP detention for more than three days.
“CBP’s facilities were designed to treat adult males and are fundamentally unsuitable for children to stay there for a period of time,” Neha Desai, a lawyer who represents migrant minors in a case, told CBS News. class action.
Migrants nicknamed these facilities “hieleras”, or freezers, because of the cold temperatures there, as well as “perreras” because of their resemblance to dog kennels.
Desai said she feared overcrowding could reach levels not seen since 2019, when border crossings came to the country’s attention over reports of families and children crammed into cinder block cells. .
“Less than two years ago, I got a call in the middle of the night about a critically ill baby at an overcrowded CBP facility. The facility had a powerful stench and an overwhelming number of children who were terrified, sick and dirty, ”Desai added.
In January, the refugee office took in more than 4,000 migrant children, up from 39 minors it had placed in its shelters in May 2020, when the US government expelled most border workers, regardless of their age, under a decree relating to the pandemic. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
CBP recorded 5,900 apprehensions of unaccompanied children and 7,500 of parents and children along the US-Mexico border last month, numbers not seen since July 2019 and January 2020, respectively. The figures, however, remain lower than historic monthly highs in May 2019, when U.S. border officials treated 11,000 unaccompanied minors and 88,000 parents and children.
As it continues to deport most single adults and families with children under the Trump-era CDC order, the Biden administration created an exception for unaccompanied children after a court appeal lifted a November decision from a federal judge that had blocked the practice.
The policy change, formalized by CDC director Rochelle Walensky earlier this month, means border officials will transfer most unaccompanied children to the refugee agency in the future.
While the move was hailed by advocates, it forced the refugee agency to look for ways to increase its bed capacity, which has been reduced due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. The office has more than 13,200 taxpayer-funded beds, but says it can currently use fewer than 8,000.
“We don’t know how many children are coming in the coming days, weeks or months, so we need to make sure that our contingency plans include preparing even more bed space than we think we need. “. the HHS official said.
A recently reopened influx facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, is expected to accommodate more than 200 migrant teenagers on Monday. The refugee agency also plans to make around 700 additional state-approved beds available in shelters across the country over the next three months, the HHS official said.
Another influx facility in Homestead, Florida may also be reopened. “Any reopening of this facility will include more child-friendly spaces for sleeping, entertaining, learning and more transparency,” the HHS official said. “It’s not just about going back to previous facilities and what they looked like in previous years.”
The HHS official said the refugee agency is also working to release the children from custody as quickly as possible – a task complicated by the minors being tested for the coronavirus. The agency is responsible for placing unaccompanied children with approved sponsors, who are usually family members in the United States.
Three shelter operators, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak about their work with the federal government, expressed concern about the decrease in bed space for migrant children, saying that the refugee agency faced significant logistical challenges.
A shelter operator noted that the rise in level crossings can be partly attributed to the Trump administration’s policy of deporting unaccompanied children, saying this created a backlog of minors waiting to seek asylum in United States.
“It created a bubble that burst because now they can enter,” said the manager of the shelter.
The HHS official said the Biden administration is committed to allowing migrant children to seek forms of humanitarian refuge enshrined in U.S. law, calling its approach “very different” from that of the Trump administration.
“It is in their legal right to seek protection,” the official said, later adding: “We have to 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 transfer unaccompanied minors out of custody. The White House did not comment.
As the Biden administration pledged to rebuild asylum processing capacity along the southern border, senior White House and homeland security officials have made a concerted effort in recent weeks to warn potential migrants that they will be quickly expelled from American soil if they head north.
But a Central American government official who works on border issues said the message was distorted by deceptive sales pitches from smugglers telling poor families the border was now open under President Biden.
“The information people are getting is ‘you can come now,'” the official, who has not been authorized to speak publicly, told CBS News. “Today, the message from coyotes is that families and children can cross paths.”