Albuquerque Journal

US expediting release of immigrant children

Facilities are full; kids to go to relatives, HHS says

- BY NOMAAN MERCHANT

HOUSTON — With its long-term facilities for immigrant children nearly full, the Biden administra­tion is working to expedite the release of children to their relatives in the U.S.

U.S. Health and Human Services on Wednesday authorized operators of long-term facilities to pay for some of the children’s flights and transporta­tion to the homes of their sponsors. Under the agency’s current guidelines, sponsors can be charged for those flights and required to pay before the government will release children, even if the sponsors have been vetted by the government.

Those costs can sometimes exceed $1,000 per child.

An internal memo sent Wednesday authorizes facility operators to use government funding for transport fees “in the event that a sponsor is not able to pay fees associated with commercial airfare, and a child’s physical release would be otherwise delayed.” HHS did not immediatel­y respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

HHS has drasticall­y cut its capacity due to the coronaviru­s pandemic. Nearly all of the department’s 7,100 beds for immigrant children are full. Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents are apprehendi­ng an average of more than 200 children crossing the border without a parent per day. Most Border Patrol facilities aren’t equipped for long-term detention, with children forced to sleep on mats in cells where the lights stay on around the clock.

To take children from the Border Patrol, HHS reopened a surge facility at Carrizo Springs, Texas, that can hold up to 700 teenagers, and may soon reopen another site at Homestead, Florida. While they have beds, classrooms and dining areas, surge facilities cost an estimated $775 per child per day and are not subject to the same licensing requiremen­ts as regular facilities.

Democrats sharply criticized them during the administra­tion of former President Donald Trump, and news of Carrizo Springs’ reopening has drawn criticism from some Democrats as well as Republican­s who argue Trump was unfairly blamed. Some have accused Biden of moving to detain children in “cages.” No children are detained in cells or behind chainlink fencing at Carrizo Springs, which has long trailers that serve as dormitorie­s and a large tent as a dining hall.

“We had to expand and open additional facilities because there was not enough space in the existing facilities if we were to abide by COVID protocols,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. Psaki noted that Biden halted a Trumpera practice of expelling unaccompan­ied immigrant children under public health law, though the U.S. still expels immigrant families and single adults who cross the border without permission.

“Our objective is to move these kids quickly from there to vetted, sponsored families and to places where they can safely be,” she said.

Leecia Welch, senior director of child welfare at the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, said HHS could have made several policy changes months ago that would alleviate what she called “a government-created crisis.” She applauded the move to pay for flights and called on U.S. officials to explore other ways to release children from HHS faster, including by raising the capacity of regular facilities while ensuring that protocols are followed to stop the spread of the virus.

One longstandi­ng requiremen­t that has delayed some releases is forcing sponsors to pay for airfares.

“Facilities have told families that they will not release a child unless they specifical­ly go to a specific travel agency and purchase tickets,” said Dr. Amy Cohen, executive director of the advocacy group Every Last One.

In one case this week, Cohen said, staff at a facility told a woman that she would have to bring a certified check to the airport in order to collect her child, who has been in an HHS facility for three weeks.

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