Orlando Sentinel

Migrant facilities strain to keep up

For the third time in seven years, additional housing opens to deal with surge of children at border.

- By Adriana Gomez Licon and Amy Taxin

For the third time in seven years, U.S. officials are scrambling to handle a dramatic spike in children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, leading to a massive expansion in emergency facilities to house them as more kids arrive than are being released to close relatives in the United States.

More than 22,000 migrant children are in government custody as of Thursday, with 10,500 sleeping on cots at convention centers, military bases and other large venues likened to hurricane evacuation shelters with little space to play and no privacy.

More than 2,500 are being held by border authoritie­s in substandar­d facilities.

The government failed to prepare for a big increase in children traveling alone as President Joe Biden ended some of his predecesso­r’s hardline immigratio­n policies and decided he wouldn’t quickly expel unaccompan­ied kids from the country like the Trump administra­tion did for eight months.

So many children are coming that there’s little room in long-term care facilities, where capacity shrank significan­tly during the coronaviru­s pandemic.

As a result, minors are packed into Border Patrol facilities not meant to hold them longer than three days or they’re staying for weeks in the mass housing sites that often lack the services they need. Lawyers say some have not seen social workers who can reunite them with family in the U.S.

“As it currently stands with a lot of these emergency intake sites, children are going in and there’s no way out,” said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law. “They’re complete dead ends.”

Donald Trump in 2019 and Barack Obama in 2014 faced similar upticks in Central American children

crossing the border alone. The numbers have now reached historic highs amid economic fallout from the pandemic, storms in Central America and the feeling among migrants that Biden is more welcoming than his predecesso­r.

The Trump administra­tion had predicted the strain on capacity, documents show. Projection­s from a former top official in the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which cares for migrant children until they’re reunited with family, said the agency would run out beds by mid-January or early February. On Feb. 22, the Biden administra­tion reopened a tent facility used during previous increases as smaller shelters ran out of beds.

The Border Patrol encountere­d 18,663 unaccompan­ied children in March, the highest monthly total on record.

The number of children in custody rose after eight months of expulsions that began in March 2020, when Trump invoked a section of an obscure public health law amid the pandemic. More than 15,000 unaccompan­ied children were expelled between April and November last year, according to government figures.

In response to a 2019 uptick in crossings, the Trump administra­tion had increased the number of beds in small and medium-size shelters that are better prepared to handle family reunificat­ions — to 13,000 by early 2020.

But pandemic restrictio­ns dropped capacity to 7,800 by November, said Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the Administra­tion of Children and Families at U.S. Health and Human Services in Obama’s second term and part of Biden’s transition team. A February government tally had it at 7,100 beds.

“Throughout 2020, they didn’t rebuild capacity,” Greenberg said of the Trump administra­tion. “For much of last year, the number of children in custody was very low, and they had 8,000 available beds, and the government was expelling children at the border. It was in that context that they didn’t rebuild the loss of supply.”

During the last months of Trump’s term, unaccompan­ied minors were allowed to stay after a federal judge ruled in November that the government couldn’t use the pandemic as a reason to expel them. In January, an appeals court said the

government could resume the practice, but Biden decided against it.

The numbers rose under Biden, who ended other Trump policies, including one that made asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for court hearings in the U.S.

Jonathan Hayes, who directed Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettleme­nt from February 2019 to March 2020, said the Biden administra­tion needed to listen to estimates on capacity needs before undoing Trump’s policies.

“We had Democrats, state and local officials who didn’t want to cooperate because in their minds they had bought into this idea that kids were in cages in HHS,” Hayes said.

Recent federal court filings show the problems that Health and Human Services faces as the number of children rises.

The challenge “will likely increase in severity in the coming weeks and months,” Cindy Huang, director of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettleme­nt, wrote last week. She said the agency is prioritizi­ng moving children out of border authoritie­s’ custody, relying on the growing network of large emergency venues run by private contractor­s.

 ?? DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS/AP ?? Young migrants wait to be tested for COVID-19 last month at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility in Donna, Texas. Officials are scrambling to handle a huge spike in children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone.
DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS/AP Young migrants wait to be tested for COVID-19 last month at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility in Donna, Texas. Officials are scrambling to handle a huge spike in children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

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