McAllen, Texas – Most of the 13 immigrant boys waiting at the small airport in this southern Texas town were still wearing the gray sweatpants and sweatshirts the US government gave them after walking alone across the southern border exceeded.
The 5 p.m. start to Houston earlier this month had been delayed by about an hour, so there was a risk they would miss their connecting flight. When the plane arrived, the boys boarded the commercial flight along with three government contractors and happened to be this reporter. There were also families with young children who had been released from custody by the border police. It was her first time on an airplane.
As soon as they landed, the boys rushed through Houston’s sprawling airport to Gate C10, where their flight to Newark, New Jersey, was due to depart in minutes. They were relieved that it was delayed too. The boys killed time talking about Manchester United’s 6-2 win over Roma earlier this week.
The 13 young migrants landed in Newark after midnight. Several families were waiting in the arrivals area, one of whom was holding a “Welcome to New York” poster.
One of the teenagers spotted his family and hurried to give them a hug. Three more boys followed and lined up to hug their parents and relatives, some of whom they hadn’t seen in years. They held on to loved ones for more than a minute. A fellow passenger who met one of the boys on the flight wept as he recorded the reunions on her phone.
Elmer, 14, hadn’t seen his mother, María, since she left Honduras in 2018. She said she could feel Elmer’s heart beating fast and his hands trembling.
“I cried. It was special,” María told CBS News in Spanish. “I ran and hugged him. My little boy had grown up. I thanked God for protecting him. It’s a nice feeling to see your son know he was in danger for so long.”
Elmer then turned and hugged his 17-year-old sister. “They were very close since he was born and had never separated,” said María, who also took her 1-year-old baby to the airport.
The reunited family made it to New Haven, Connecticut at around 4 a.m. Elmer said he showered and got ready to sleep next to his mother. “I was full of happiness and emotion,” Elmer told CBS News.
Elmer couldn’t sleep. Maria said he was still up at 6 a.m.
“When I opened my eyes he looked at me. I don’t think he expected to be with me again,” said María. “But I promised him that I would fight to make it happen.”
“Around the clock”
Elmer’s long-awaited reunion with his mother and siblings is part of an unprecedented effort by the US government to bring the record number of unaccompanied children who have crossed the southern border into the homes of relatives in the US in recent months
During President Biden’s first full three months in office, more than 45,000 unaccompanied migrant children were detained along the southern border, according to the government. The Biden administration has protected these children and has refused to revive Trump-era policies of deporting them under a pandemic-related emergency ordinance called Title 42.
The shelter for unaccompanied children began to wane in February. By March and early April, the Border Patrol non-minors facilities were severely overcrowded, with nearly 5,800 unaccompanied children at one point.
Elmer said he spent a week at the Immigrant Children’s Border Guard in Donna, Texas, the largest of its kind. He said it was full of other unaccompanied children and families. He remembered getting little rest and fear of burritos, which were often still half-frozen.
Overcrowding in these facilities has since decreased and the number of unaccompanied children in border custody has increasedby over 90% and dropping below 600 this week. However, there are still more than 20,000 unaccompanied children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where they are housed until they can be passed on to sponsors who are usually family members in the United States
While HHS-supervised shelters are far better suited than border guards, more than 13,000 of the unaccompanied youths in the department’s care have been detained in convention centers, labor camps, military bases, and other shelters as of last week, according to internal data audited by CBS News, not approved for the care of minors.
HHS now has the daunting task of finding and screening sponsors for more than 20,000 children in custody, as well as the hundreds of minors it continues to receive from Border Patrol on a daily basis.
Between February and April, the HHS Refugee Resettlement Office received 33,700 unaccompanied children, with each month setting a historic record. This is based on information from the agency received from CBS News. Between Mr. Biden’s inauguration and this week, HHS has placed more than 20,000 children with godparents, according to a department official.
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HHS has increased its discharge rate in the past few weeks. At the end of January, an average of 89 minors were released daily, the department official said. Recently, HHS has sponsored an average of 608 children per day.
The time children spend in HHS care has also decreased. Migrant minors spend about 29 days in the department’s custody before they are released, compared with the 42-day average in late January, according to the HHS official.
The refugee office has oneProcedures for children whose parents are willing to look after them in the U.S. It has also paid travel expenses for minors and their sponsors to facilitate their reunion and allowed case managers to fill out application forms for potential sponsors.
Neha Desai, an attorney who represents immigrant youth in a landmark court case, said HHS has made progress in accelerating child releases but noted that more can be done. She said HHS could waive fingerprinting requirements for uncles, aunts, and cousins of child care, just as the department has done for parents and primary carers like grandparents.
“There are currently large numbers of children in detention just because the government is waiting for fingerprint results even though the review of public records has already been completed,” Desai of the National Center for Juvenile Rights told CBS News. “Eliminating the requirement of fingerprints for immediate relatives who were not previously the child’s primary caregiver would improve ORR’s ability to quickly and safely transfer children to godparents.”
HHS said it was making “incredible efforts around the clock” to quickly reunite migrant children with their families. However, an HHS official said the department is doing so while maintaining sponsor protections to protect minors. All potential sponsors will undergo background and sex offender screening.
“I can be really confident that we have not compromised, that we have made efficiencies and that we have streamlined things,” a HHS official told CBS News. “We want to make sure that we are released safely and that we are released on time.”
“It is very nice”
María, who cleans a building in the Bridgeport area at night, said she fled Honduras with her teenage daughter in 2018 after speaking out politically against the conservative Honduran government. In 2019, a U.S. immigration judge granted her asylum, but the Trump administration appealed the decision and delayed her case, she said.
Because of the appeal, María said she could not apply for Elmer to come legally to the United States. She said she wanted him to leave Honduras because he lives in a remote area and doesn’t go to school.
“I tried to bring him legally but couldn’t,” said María. “My son spent two years without going to school. He lived with his 90-year-old great-grandmother who couldn’t look after him. That’s why I made the decision despite my fear of the trip.”
Elmer’s hike to the US border took 30 days. He said it wasn’t easy, but noted that he was promoting hope of reuniting with his family. María said she was constantly worried about his safety and noticed that the smugglers he was traveling with were leaving him and other youths in northern Mexico.
“I don’t think he was fully aware of the danger, but I felt it,” said María. “There are many people who want to harm migrants.”
Photo for CBS News
If the government drops her appeal against María’s asylum process, Elmer will automatically be entitled to permanent US status.
Elmer had his first day of school in the US on Wednesday. It was virtual, but he’s hoping to take classes in person next week. He said he was looking forward to math class, his favorite subject.
“It’s very nice,” Elmer said when asked if he liked the US