Houston Chronicle

Big rise of migrant children at agency

- By Brandon Mulder

The claim: “Twice as many children are in Border Patrol custody under Biden than Trump peak in 2019.” — Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott, a Republican, made the claim in a March 30 tweet.

PolitiFact rating: True. Numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection verify this claim. The Trump administra­tion recorded 2,600 minors in Border Patrol custody in June 2019, which was the highest amount during President Donald Trump’s term.

As of March 29, 5,160 minors were in Border Patrol custody, waiting to be transferre­d to the Office of Refugee Resettleme­nt.

Discussion

Unaccompan­ied minors have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers since President Joe Biden took office, and Republican leaders in border states have been quick to highlight the challenges the federal government is facing.

Abbott hammered the Biden administra­tion on border issues throughout March. First, he accused the administra­tion of “reckless border policies” that have released migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 into the U.S. More recently, the governor has focused on the uptick of unaccompan­ied minors arriving at the border.

“The Biden Admin. is unprepared for the crises they have caused,” Abbott continued in the tweet, adding that state police and National Guard forces have been dispatched to assist in the situation.

2019 was the last year border authoritie­s recorded a surge in migrant children and family crossings. And authoritie­s believe the number of encounters this year will surpass levels seen then.

Abbott’s claim cited an article published Tuesday by the Washington Examiner, a conservati­ve Washington, D.C., news site. Citing “federal data exclusivel­y obtained Monday evening,” the website reported the same claim. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the numbers.

In 2020, the Trump administra­tion stopped taking minors into custody after it implemente­d a policy that immediatel­y expelled all people crossing the border, including children, citing COVID-19 precaution­s.

The Biden administra­tion suspended that policy for children in January and now allows youngsters who cross the border alone to remain in the U.S. while they await immigratio­n court proceeding­s.

Migrant children can be held at Border Patrol facilities for a maximum of 72 hours, a rule set forth under the Traffickin­g Victims Protection Reauthoriz­ation Act of 2008. From there, children are referred to the Office of Refugee Resettleme­nt, within the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which is tasked with providing care for the minors and connecting them with suitable sponsors.

But the strain the high number of migrant children has placed on the system has caused many minors to be held at the Border Patrol facilities beyond the 72hour limit. (The Trump administra­tion also struggled with meeting that limit.) As of March 30, for instance, more than 2,000 children being held at a Border Patrol facility in Donna had been there for more than 72 hours, according to Pro Publica.

“We need to do a better job of ensuring that HHS and ORR has greater capacity, and we need to speed up the transfer of these children from our custody to their custody much faster,” a senior Customs and Border Protection official told reporters during a March 26 briefing.

The Biden administra­tion has raced to establish greater capacity in the Office of Refugee Resettleme­nt to relieve the bottleneck within Border Patrol facilities. The agency has activated or opened what it calls influx care facilities, which are unlicensed care facilities that offer surplus shelter space and can be set up in a matter of weeks, and emergency intake sites, which are new facilities that serve as way stations for unaccompan­ied children moving from Border Patrol custody to Office of Refugee Resettleme­nt custody, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Many of these new or temporary shelters are being set up across Texas, including one in Houston.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise factors that are causing today’s numbers of unaccompan­ied children to double 2019’s peak, experts say.

Immigratio­n experts often separate migration drivers into two categories: push factors, or the conditions in origin countries that are causing people to leave home; and pull factors, or the conditions of a destinatio­n country that make it a more attractive place to live.

Immigratio­n policies in the U.S. are often listed as a significan­t pull factor, and Biden relaxing those policies after Trump’s immigratio­n austerity is often cited as a significan­t one.

But many experts say it’s the push factors in migrants’ home countries that are strong drivers of migration into the U.S.

In 2019, Honduras struggled with civil unrest and an increase in gang violence, while Guatemala wrestled with environmen­tal issues that affected the population’s food security.

Last year, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua suffered two Category 4 hurricanes that struck the region within a two-week span. With millions left in need of aid, the hurricanes exacerbate­d poverty and worsened access to clean water, giving an extra nudge to people considerin­g northern migration.

“The hurricanes made a huge difference,” said Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees Internatio­nal. “People were in a situation where they were just getting by, and then the hurricane wiped them out.”

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