U.S. Reduces Migrant Kids in Border Patrol Custody, however Emergency Shelters Pose New Considerations

WASHINGTON – The Biden government has opened more than a dozen emergency shelters for children in the past few weeks to help remove migrant children from border police custody. Congress centers, concert halls, military bases and camps for oil field workers were used to counteract the increase in unaccompanied minors.

The shift has allowed the administration to reduce overcrowding and meet the legal requirement that children be quickly removed from border guards’ custody. However, the new shelters give cause for concern to some immigrants and child welfare advocates that conditions inside are unsuitable to hold children for long periods of time. The shelters are a short-term solution as they work to open more licensed shelters, three administrative officials said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported a record number of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the southern border in the past few months. Hundreds of children arrive every day to seek asylum or other protection. Under federal law, migrants under the age of 18 traveling without parents must be removed from custody of border guards to a children’s home supervised by the Department of Health and Human Services within three days of crossing the border.

Typically, the accommodations are licensed by government agencies and offer child-rearing, counseling and legal services. The children stay there while they begin their immigration cases and seek a guardian to take them in.

To keep up with the number of children in HHS detention – since Tuesday, according to Department 22,174 – the administration has rushed to hire contractors and staff for the more than a dozen unlicensed shelters. About half of the children in HHS detention are in the shelters, where they sleep on cots and shower in mobile trailers.

As of Tuesday, 735 children were waiting in Border Patrol tents or prisons to be taken to an HHS shelter, according to government figures of more than 5,700 as of March 28. Children are now being released from border police custody within a day of arrival after reaching a pace five and a half days a month ago that has been criticized on both sides of the aisle.

Alejandro Mayorkas, Minister of Homeland Security.


Andrew Harnik / Associated Press

“The progress we have made is dramatic,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, Minister of Homeland Security, in a phone call to reporters on Sunday. He said the DHS had overhauled government processes and deployed staff to reduce the number of children in CBP custody.

In the past few days, the government has reported that the government has sponsored more children than it has taken into custody. This is a sign that the flow of children through the system is accelerating.

HHS said it cut the number of days migrant children are in its care from an average of 42 days at the start of the Biden administration to 29 days last month.

“We have worked around the clock across the administration to make significant progress,” said a representative from HHS.

Some immigrant and child advocates are concerned that, while many children lack border guards, they are still being held in inappropriate conditions.

HHS did not answer detailed questions about the conditions in its shelters. The news media were allowed to go to a migrant facility in Texas in March but have not been given access to the new shelters.

Border towns like Brownsville, Texas see their resources depleted as they work to manage the growing number of migrant families who cross the US-Mexico border. WSJ’s Michelle Hackman reported in March. Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas

Neha Desai, director of immigration for the Oakland, Calif.-Based not-for-profit National Center for Youth Rights, which represents immigrant children under a settlement agreement with the government, described the shelters as a well-intentioned move to remove children from border patrol stations, but said she did have heard worrying reports about their conditions.

“Based on what children shared during our interviews, I have significant concerns about the well-being of the children they are staying with [these shelters] for more than a couple of weeks and with no information on how much longer they’ll be there, “she said.

Republicans have criticized the Democratic government for allowing children to stay in the US and pursue their immigration cases instead of immediately sending them back to their home countries with no option to seek protection, as the Trump administration did did. They say the Biden approach has inspired more minors to try the US trip knowing they are allowed to stay.

Migrants from Honduras approached a U.S. processing center in March preparing to seek asylum after crossing the southern border near Mission, Texas.


Julio Cortez / Associated Press

“I don’t think this government has a plan that makes sense,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Pa.), Whose district was briefly home to one of the shelters. “This is a breach of duty.”

At the Dallas Convention Center, the government is home to up to 2,300 teenagers who sleep in a large, windowless room, said Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, an immigration attorney who volunteered on site. The boys are given three meals a day and two calls a week to a family member in the United States, she said. “My main concern was how long you can keep kids like this in a room without seeing the sunlight,” said Ms. Saenz-Rodriguez.

The administration hired the Federal Emergency Management Agency in March to set up new emergency shelters, which administration officials hold responsible for speeding up the process. However, due to the accelerated pace, some employees of the Office for Refugee Resettlement, the HHS agency that runs the network of children’s homes, stayed behind. They felt they had lost control of the quality of the locations opened, according to those familiar with their thinking.

“Because the numbers are so big, they had to come up with something new quickly,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research and immigration policy organization that likened the temporary facilities to hurricane shelters. “This is more than anything the program has ever offered before.”


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In April alone, the government opened two shelters in Houston and Erie, Pennsylvania, and then quickly closed them amid staff shortages and other security concerns, according to people familiar with the matter. Houston did not have enough staff to bring children to the bathroom and some were forced to relieve themselves in water bottles, according to those familiar with the situation. HHS didn’t answer questions about the Houston bathrooms.

Personnel challenges have been a big problem, government officials and supporters said. The government urged employees, from the Air Force to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to volunteer at shelters, make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and help children call relatives in the United States

In many cases, the shelters opened so quickly that HHS didn’t have time to set up legal or case management services, which meant the government kept them without starting a U.S. guardian search. This resulted in many children waiting in shelters for weeks, lawyers said.

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at [email protected]

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