Originally Published in The New York Times
Miriam Jordan - February 26, 2021
LOS ANGELES — Thousands of unaccompanied migrant children have been making their way to the southwestern border in recent weeks, presenting a new challenge for the Biden administration as it strives to create a humanitarian approach to unauthorized immigration.
Most of the children, who are arriving from Central America by the hundreds each day, are being placed under Covid-19 quarantine for 10 days and then shuttled to shelters around the country — prompting complaints that President Biden is returning to one of the most controversial practices of the Trump administration, the extended detention of migrant children.
In the last week, the Border Patrol intercepted more than 2,000 young migrants traveling without adults, most of them in their teens but some as young as 6. There is widespread concern that their numbers in coming months could break the record set in May 2019, when 11,000 underage migrants were encountered by the Border Patrol.
“We are seeing minors up and down the line. In South Texas, we are being hammered,” said one Homeland Security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk publicly about the situation.
The arrival of unaccompanied children in large numbers compounds a difficult situation already in the making, with migrant families and single adults arriving at the border in ever larger numbers in recent months.
Human rights groups have criticized the decision to hold children in detention during the weeks or months it takes to place them with relatives, a policy they say harks back to the Trump administration’s construction of tent camps along the border to hold an overflow of migrant children.
Last week, the Biden administration reopened a temporary shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to house up to 700 migrant teenagers. The shelter, which faced a barrage of criticism, was closed in July 2019 after the number of children arriving at the border sharply declined.
“It seems this administration can’t think their way through to a new way to handle the situation,” said Joshua Rubin, an activist with Witness at the Border, which was preparing to stage protests outside a soon-to-reopen migrant children’s center in Florida. “Spending time in these large, impersonal places traumatizes them.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York who was a longtime critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, said on Twitter that “this is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party.”
Critics of the administration’s policies say most of the children arrive with the address and phone number of a relative in the United States and should be allowed to promptly join their families. Covid-19 quarantines are not necessary for children who test negative for the virus at the border, they say.
Pressure on the border had waned after the Trump administration put into place a bevy of policies that effectively blocked migrants from entering the United States to request asylum.
Within days of taking office, Mr. Biden swiftly signed a series of executive orders to reverse several of those measures. But the pressure seems to be escalating before his administration has had time to make the preparations it says are needed to manage a substantial number of new arrivals — ramping up border facilities, adding to the staff and coordinating with Mexico. The latest arrivals are fueled in part by deteriorating conditions in Central America and perceptions by migrants that they will receive a friendlier reception from Mr. Biden.
“The reality is, we had to pull the pin out of Trump’s brutal policies, and Biden is trying to do it in a responsible, sequenced way,” said Seth Stodder, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. “But some of the dynamics are not in his control.”
The pandemic has exacerbated the challenge.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for overseeing the care of migrant children who arrive alone, operates a shelter network with 13,000 beds around the country. To comply with Covid-19 protocols, the agency has reduced the facilities’ occupancy to 60 percent. At least one shelter operator said his network was adhering to that capacity.
Faced with a housing crunch, the agency this week opened the temporary emergency shelter at Carrizo Springs and is reportedly preparing to reopen an even larger facility, in Homestead, Fla., which inspectors previously had deemed unhealthy and unsafe for children. A search is underway across federal property for places where additional shelters can be erected.
These shelters have been criticized because they generally hold hundreds of children in soft-sided structures, such as tents, that do not have the amenities of longer-term shelters, which are licensed and inspected.
“If they haven’t done a substantial remodel, they are opening a place like Homestead that has dangerous conditions for children,” said Hope Frye, a lawyer who was a member of an inspection team that visited in 2019.
Shelter operators around the country said they have been told that the Homestead facility would be reopened, but a Health and Human Services official said the agency had not made a formal decision yet. “We are not going to take any shortcuts,” the official said. “We are not going to put kids in dangerous situations.”
By law, the government cannot keep migrant children in holding facilities at the border for more than 72 hours; it must either transfer them to a shelter or release them. The Homeland Security official said many children in recent weeks have been stranded in the border processing centers for longer. “We can only get them out of our care as fast as H.H.S. can accept them,” the official said.
During the surge of Central American migrants in 2019, the Trump administration came under attack after child welfare inspectors found that overcrowding had turned the temporary shelters into filthy, dehumanizing environments where children suffered neglect.
“Children must be swiftly transferred to state-licensed shelters for children, as required by law, and not detained for weeks in Border Patrol facilities that are fundamentally inappropriate and unsafe for children,” said Neha Desai, director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif. She is one of the lawyers charged with ensuring that the government follows standards for migrant children established by a 1997 court settlement decree, known as the Flores agreement.
Once the children are in shelters, the Office of Refugee Resettlement arranges to send them to family members, following guidelines to make sure they are not released to traffickers and will be well cared for in their new homes. But releases in recent weeks have been delayed by a requirement that the young migrants remain in quarantine for 10 days and twice test negative for the coronavirus.
During a news briefing this week, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, conceded that the administration faced a “tough choice.”
Their options are to send children back to danger in their home countries or to families in the United States who have not been properly vetted, she said.
“Our best option, in our view, is to get these kids processed through H.H.S. facilities where there are Covid protocols in place, where they are safe, where they can have access to education and medical care,” Ms. Psaki said.
In an attempt to expedite releases and free up beds, the government advised shelter operators in a memo this week that it would pay airfare for young migrants to join sponsors in cases where families could not pay for tickets themselves. The government said it would also pay airfare for an escort when necessary.
Family members who serve as sponsors have long been required to pay transportation costs, though the requirement was temporarily waived by the Obama administration in 2016. Paying airfare, in the end, may be cheaper than holding children: Costs at a temporary emergency shelter like Carrizo Springs average about $700 per child a day because of the need to install infrastructure like a kitchen, generators and showers.
The United States began to see a significant increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in 2011, many of them facing threats of violence from gangs. Those problems continue to plague the region. Hurricanes battered Guatemala and Honduras recently, and climate change has rendered land less productive, further pushing people to journey to the United States in a gamble for a better life.
This year, shelter operators said they expected that the numbers of young people could dwarf what was seen during the Obama and Trump administrations.
The Trump administration faced widespread criticism for summarily deporting minors who had arrived at the border without an adult. In November, a federal judge in the District of Columbia prohibited such expulsions, but an appeals court stayed the ruling last month.
Mr. Biden opted not to resume the expulsions, a decision that was applauded by immigrant advocates and essentially opened the floodgates.
“If Trump hadn’t expelled all these children, the arrivals would have been staggered and we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Ms. Frye said.
Migrant families, expecting a more relaxed border policy, began gathering on the Mexican side of the border even before Mr. Biden took office. His announcement that the public health emergency would not be lifted, and that adults would not be allowed to enter the country in large numbers, did not dissuade them.
Since U.S. border authorities began processing migrant families in small numbers this month along the Texas border, thousands of people who had been turned back elsewhere, from as far away as Tijuana, have flocked to the Mexican towns near those border posts, hoping to apply for asylum.
Aid groups are rushing to try to help provide shelter and supplies for the stranded families.
One memo circulating among volunteers laid out the problem clearly: “DIAPERS ARE NEEDED EVERYWHERE.”
James Dobbins contributed reporting from Carrizo Springs, Texas.