Originally Published in The New York Times
Miriam Jordan, Simon Romero and Zolan Kanno-Youngs - March 15, 2021
The Biden administration is struggling to find space for a surge of migrant children and teenagers that is almost three times the level seen early last year.
Migrant children are being forced to sleep on gym mats with foil sheets and go for days without showering as the Border Patrol struggles to handle thousands of young Central Americans who are surging across the southwestern border, some of them as young as a year old.
Children are arriving in groups and alone, some of them clutching phone numbers of relatives scrawled on little pieces of paper, according to two court-appointed lawyers who are monitoring conditions at facilities along the border. Many of the children interviewed by the lawyers in recent days said they had not been allowed outdoors for days on end, confined to an overcrowded tent.
“It’s an urgent situation. These children are caught up in a crisis,” said Leecia Welch, a lawyer who visited a holding facility for migrant children in Donna, Texas, that was built to house 250 people but which last week was holding about 1,000.
More than 9,400 minors — ranging from young children to teenagers — arrived along the border without parents in February, a nearly threefold increase over last year at the same time, presenting the Biden administration with an urgent humanitarian challenge as it opens the door to children and gradually welcomes in families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
Two Department of Homeland Security officials confirmed on Monday that the administration planned to shelter thousands of teenage boys at a convention center in downtown Dallas. The administration is opening another temporary facility in Midland, Texas, at a former camp for oil field workers. The Department of Health and Human Services is also considering a proposal to house migrants at a NASA site, Moffett Federal Airfield, in Mountain View, Calif.
The backlog in migrant shelters, which until recently were strained by coronavirus occupancy limits, has caused a logjam in Border Patrol processing facilities and resulted in the detention of many children for several days longer than the maximum 72 hours allowed under federal law.
Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said last week that those housed at the border stations have full access to meals and medical care, and are provided showers every 48 hours.
The southwestern border typically sees a surge in migration during the spring months, ahead of the lethal summer heat. During the current fiscal year that started Oct. 1, Customs and Border Protection has recorded more than 396,000 migrant crossings, including at official ports of entry, compared with about 201,600 during the same period last fiscal year.
A majority of those crossings involved single adults, who under current rules are often quickly expelled back to Mexico or their home countries. But President Biden has declined to expel unaccompanied children back to uncertain fates in Mexican border cities, and the number of those cases has reached more than 29,700 this fiscal year — about 400 a day so far in March — compared with 17,100 during the same period last fiscal year.
Operators of private shelters along the border said the numbers were expected to increase substantially between now and June, and said there appeared to be no government plan in place to handle any additional increase.
The tent facility erected just a month ago in Donna, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, is crammed with more than 1,000 children and teenagers, some as young as 1, according to the lawyers who recently visited.
Their interviews with about 20 children, arranged under a court settlement guaranteeing protections for migrant children, provide the only window so far into conditions during the current surge at border facilities, which normally are not open for public access.
The Border Patrol is operating the Donna facility, holding 40 children to a room in white tents partitioned with clear, plastic sheets, until a government shelter can receive them.
The two lawyers, Ms. Welch and Neha Desai, visited on Thursday; under a 1997 settlement decree, known as Flores, they are permitted to inspect facilities holding children to monitor the government’s compliance with the agreement, which guarantees protections for migrant children held in government custody.
Some of the children told the visiting lawyers that there were not enough mats available for sleeping, forcing some of them to sleep directly on the ground or on a metal bench. Many said they had been confined to their crowded room for the duration of their stay.
Ms. Welch said the lawyers were not allowed by the Justice Department to go inside the facility, but instead were allowed to interview about 20 children brought to a portable unit.
She said that they received a list, several pages long, of more than 1,000 children who were being housed at the facility, and that a “staggering” number of them were children under the age of 10.
“One child told me that she hadn’t showered in six days, others said two and others three,” Ms. Welch said. “Obviously, the border authorities are overwhelmed with the numbers.”
She said that most of the children interviewed, who ranged in age from 8 to 13 years, said they had been in the tent for five to seven days, in violation of acceptable practice designed to safeguard their well-being.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday sent a letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, calling on the Biden administration to limit detention of migrants at the border, hold its staff members accountable and establish a humane asylum system.
“Border Patrol has a long history of holding people in inhumane conditions,” Shaw Drake, staff attorney for the A.C.L.U. of Texas, said. “These facilities should keep migrants for as little time as possible, especially children.”
“The Biden administration needs to work quickly to find alternatives,” he said.
In response to the recent surge in arrivals, the Biden administration is directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in processing and finding shelters for the children. The agency, which normally provides financial assistance during natural disasters, will help find shelter space and provide “food, water and basic medical care” to thousands of young migrants. The Biden administration has also deployed Health and Human Services officials to border facilities, where the children are held before being moved to shelters, to help quickly identify their sponsors.
The administration also has asked officials in the Department of Homeland Security to volunteer “to help care for and assist unaccompanied minors” who have been held in border facilities.
But the infrastructure along the border, largely designed for single men, has not adjusted to the demographic shift to children and families, who began to arrive in large numbers in 2013. Finding suitable housing has been a challenge for several administrations.
Most of the children are being placed under Covid-19 quarantine for 10 days in shelters around the country, which is delaying their release to family members or other sponsors — and creating the bottleneck in border facilities like the one in Donna.
The government last month opened an emergency shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, with a 700-bed capacity.
Jeff Hild, deputy assistant secretary for legislation at theDepartment of Health and Human Services, said the agency expected to decide soon about the feasibility of the NASA site in California.
He said that another such site in Homestead, Fla., which has previously housed more than 1,700 migrant youth, is in “warm status.” Immigrant advocates have reported construction activity there in recent weeks.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas blamed the border crisis on the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
“The Biden administration’s reckless open-border policies have created a humanitarian crisis for unaccompanied minors coming across the border,” he said in a statement. “With no plan in place, the administration has created heartbreaking and inhumane conditions for children who are being held in Texas.”
Despite the current space constraints, immigration groups that have long worked along the border cautioned against describing the situation with a sense of alarm.
Marisa Limón Garza, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, said various factors were contributing to the rising numbers of migrants at several border sites — including the changing of the seasons, hurricanes in Central America and the gradual phasing out of a requirement that many asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their applications are being considered.
“We don’t see this as a crisis,” said Ms. Limón Garza, whose organization has been briefed by administration officials on the treatment of migrant families at border facilities. “Spring is the natural time for migration between the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer. We also know that the Trump administration really did quite a bit of damage within the bureaucracy, so putting that all together, that’s the context we’re in.”
Similarly, Linda Rivas, the executive director at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said the uptick this year resembled the migration flows she had seen in seven years as a practicing immigration lawyer, with more people heading north as the spring approaches.
But Ms. Rivas also expressed concern over the challenges the Biden administration faced as it tried to work with an immigration system that the previous administration overhauled with the aim of making it exceptionally difficult to apply for asylum in the United States.
“We would love to see the processing of minor children happen a lot quicker,” Ms. Rivas said. But, she added, “Right now we don’t have an operational asylum system because there’s still a lot of rebuilding to do.”
Erin Coulehan contributed reporting.