Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times
Cindy Carcamo and Andrea Castillo - April 3, 2021
Federal authorities are considering the use of two more facilities in California to temporarily house the increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border with Mexico.
The Long Beach Convention Center could soon be tapped, said a source who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. And federal officials sent a request for the same purpose to use Camp Roberts, a California Army National Guard base inland along the central coast, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed in a briefing Thursday.
The San Diego Convention Center, which had been used as a homeless shelter earlier during the pandemic, has been transformed into a temporary facility for teenage girls through mid-July. On its first day last week, 500 girls were expected to arrive. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said they would be tested for the coronavirus before leaving border facilities and again every three days after arrival to the convention center.
The department declined to comment about the two latest facility requests.
“HHS will notify state and local officials when a decision is made about the potential use of any temporary facility to accommodate unaccompanied children,” an agency spokesperson said.
The Long Beach Post reported Thursday that migrant children could be housed in the convention center’s 45,000-square-foot arena. Federal agents from the Homeland Security Department, which oversees border security, were seen visiting the center Wednesday afternoon.
John Braun, assistant general manager of the center, declined to comment. City officials could not be reached Friday.
Kirby, of the Pentagon, said the agency was analyzing the request but declined to confirm how many children could be housed at Camp Roberts. He said he wasn’t aware of any other requests from HHS for assistance with housing migrant children.
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“But clearly, we’re in constant communication with HHS,” he said. “If they desire to request additional use of [Department of Defense] installations, we will certainly entertain those requests going forward.”
As of Friday, 13,359 children were in the custody of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement after being transferred from Customs and Border Protection. The number of children apprehended by Border Patrol has increased steadily over the last year.
Last month, Border Patrol agents took custody of more than 18,800 unaccompanied children — significantly more than the previous one-month high of nearly 11,900 in May 2019, according to preliminary figures released to the Washington Post on Friday and confirmed by the Los Angeles Times.
Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, is required to transfer unaccompanied children in its custody to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours. That process has been stymied as more children have been arriving daily than are able to be transferred out.
Using temporary facilities such as convention centers and military bases is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to speed up the transfer of children out of Border Patrol custody, as the administration works through the lengthy process of increasing state-licensed facilities. Most of the temporary facilities that have opened are in Texas.
By law, people have the right to seek asylum at U.S. ports of entry. But under the Trump administration, the vast majority of children and families seeking asylum were turned away. Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director at Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said she believes that cities like Long Beach opening their doors to children is an indication of how welcoming California is to immigrants.
“The emergency facility in California is necessary to help clean up Trump’s mess and ensure that unaccompanied children have access to asylum once again,” she said.
Most military bases are too remote to be holding migrant children, said Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at UC Irvine. Convention centers are a better fit, he said.
“They also need to ensure that the child migrants are safe and not further traumatized,” he said. “The image of the military might be hard for many of the Central American migrants.”
Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of Every Last One — a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that works to reunite separated migrant families, disagreed that one type of facility should be preferred over another.
“The kids are always confined to the campus, so they could plant it on the moon and it wouldn’t matter,” she said.
Cohen said that children who stay in prolonged government custody are being traumatized. Part of the issue, she said, is that children arriving with anyone other than a parent or legal guardian are classified as unaccompanied and separated from the adult they traveled with. Immigration authorities assert that they do this out of concern about possible child trafficking.
“This government doesn’t seem to recognize that having a pretty building with some crayons does not replace uniting children with their families,” Cohen said.
Some Republican politicians and conservative analysts have seized on the issue, dubbing it “Biden’s border crisis.”
“Today’s numbers are just more evidence of this undeniable reality — and proof that President Biden’s policies are driving the crisis,” Lora Ries and Mark Morgan of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative D.C.-based think tank, said Friday in a statement.
Preliminary numbers show that CBP officials took into custody an estimated 171,000 people last month at the U.S.-Mexico border. That number is slightly higher than the most recent previous monthly high of 144,000 people in May 2019.
After March 2020, then-President Trump invoked Title 42, a rarely used public health authority that his administration claimed allowed border officials to quickly expel migrants seeking admission into the U.S., ostensibly to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Most migrants crossing the border without permission are simply “expelled” without being processed through the immigration court system.
Since Title 42 was invoked, the Border Patrol has labeled the data as encounters, not apprehensions. CBP estimates the rate of repeat crossings at 40%.
San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Kate Morrissey contributed to this report.
Cindy Carcamo covers immigration issues for the Los Angeles Times. Previously, she was Arizona bureau chief and a national correspondent for The Times, focusing on border and immigration issues in the Southwest. A Los Angeles native, she has reported in Argentina and Mexico during her time as an Inter American Press Assn. scholar and as a reporter for the Orange County Register. She’s also reported from Guatemala and Honduras where her coverage was part of a team Overseas Press Club Award. She is also the recipient of the French-American Foundation’s 2012 Immigration Journalism Award and was a finalist for the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Journalism and 2011 Livingston Award.