LOS ANGELES – Thousands of unaccompanied migrant children have been heading for the southwest border in recent weeks, posing a new challenge for the Biden government, which is committed to a humanitarian approach to unauthorized immigration.
Most of the children, arriving in hundreds from Central America every day, are quarantined in Covid-19 for 10 days and then taken to shelters across the country – sparking 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 past week, the Border Patrol has intercepted more than 2,000 young migrants traveling without adults, most of them in their teens, but some only 6 years old. There is widespread concern that their numbers could break the May 2019 record in the coming months. when 11,000 underage migrants were found by border security.
“We see minors going up and down the line. We are being knocked down in South Texas, ”said a Homeland Security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, because the officer was not authorized to speak publicly about the situation.
The arrival of large numbers of unaccompanied children creates a difficult situation already in the making, with migrant families and single adults arrived at the border in increasing numbers in recent months.
Many migrants – not all – are being returned by US authorities under an emergency public health law invoked by former President Donald J. Trump at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But the Biden government has decided not to deny minors entry, and they are now crowding out border processing facilities and taxing government shelters.
Human rights groups have criticized the decision to keep children in detention for the weeks or months it takes to place them with relatives, a policy they say harkens back to the Trump administration's construction of tented camps along the border to create a overflow of migrant children.
Last week, the Biden government 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 had fallen sharply.
"It seems this government cannot think of a new way to deal with the situation," said Joshua Rubin, an activist at Witness at the Border who was preparing to hold protests outside a soon to be reopened migrant children center. in Florida. "Spending time in these large, impersonal places traumatizes them."
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who has long been a critic of the Trump administration's immigration policies, said on Twitter that "this isn't okay, never okay, never will be okay – regardless of administration or party."
Critics of government policy say most children arrive in the United States with a family member's address and phone number and should be allowed to join their families immediately. Covid-19 quarantines are not necessary for children who test negative for the virus at the border, they say.
The pressure on the border had eased after the Trump administration introduced many policies that prevent migrants from entering the United States to seek asylum.
Within days of taking office, Mr. Biden quickly signed a series of executive orders to overturn some of those measures. But the pressure appears to be escalating before his administration has had time to make the preparations it believes are necessary to manage a significant number of newcomers – expanding border facilities, expanding the workforce, and coordinating with Mexico. The latest arrivals are fueled in part by deteriorating conditions in Central America and migrants' perception that they will be received more cordially by Mr Biden.
“ The reality is we had to pull the pin from Trump's brutal policies, and Biden is trying to do it responsibly, sequentially, '' said Seth Stodder, a former assistant secretary of domestic security in the Obama administration. "But he cannot control some of the dynamics."
The pandemic has compounded the challenge.
The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for overseeing the care of migrant children arriving alone, operates a shelter network with 13,000 beds across the country. To comply with the Covid-19 protocols, the agency has reduced the occupancy of the facilities to 60 percent. At least one shelter operator said his network was up to that capacity.
Faced with a housing crisis, the agency opened the temporary emergency shelter in Carrizo Springs this week and is reportedly preparing to reopen an even larger facility, in Homestead, Florida, which inspectors previously considered unhealthy and unsafe for children. On federal land, places are being sought where additional shelters can be built.
These shelters have been criticized for generally holding hundreds of children in soft-sided structures, such as tents, that lack the amenities of longer-term shelters, are licensed and inspected.
"If they don't do major remodeling, they will open a place like Homestead that has dangerous conditions for children," said Hope Frye, a lawyer who was on an inspection team that visited in 2019.
Shelter operators across the country said they have been told the Homestead facility would be reopened, but a Health and Human Services official said the agency had not yet made a formal decision. "We are not going to take shortcuts," said the official. "We are not going to put children in dangerous situations."
By law, the government is not allowed to keep migrant children in shelters at the border for more than 72 hours; it must either transfer them to shelter or release them. The Homeland Security official said many children have been stranded in border processing centers for longer in recent weeks. “We can only get them out of our care as soon as H.H.S. can accept them, ”said the official.
During the 2019 wave of Central American migrants, the Trump administration was attacked after child welfare inspectors discovered that overcrowding had turned temporary shelters into filthy, inhumane environments where children were neglected.
"Children should be quickly transferred to state-approved child shelters, 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, California. She is one of the attorneys responsible for ensuring that the government follows the norms for migrant children set by a court decision from 1997, known as the Flores Agreement.
Once the children are in shelters, the Office of Refugee Resettlement will arrange to send them to relatives, following guidelines to ensure that they are not released to traffickers and that they are well looked after in their new homes. But recent weeks' releases have been delayed by the demand that the young migrants remain in quarantine for 10 days and test negative for the coronavirus twice.
In a newsletter this week, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, admitted that the government was faced with a "difficult choice".
Their options are to send children back to danger in their home countries or to families in the United States that have not been properly vetted, she said.
“Our best option, in our opinion, is to have these children processed through H.H.S. facilities where there are Covid protocols, where they are safe, where they have access to education and medical care, ”said Ms Psaki.
In an effort to hasten release and free up beds, the government issued a memo this week informing reception center operators that it would pay a plane ticket for young migrants to join sponsors in cases where families do not support themselves. could afford tickets. The government said it would also pay for airline tickets for an escort if necessary.
Family members who serve as sponsors have long been required to pay transportation costs, although the requirement was temporarily lifted by the Obama administration in 2016. Paying airline tickets may ultimately be cheaper than keeping children: costs at a temporary emergency shelter like Carrizo Springs average about $ 700 per child per day because of the need to install infrastructure such as 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 whom were threatened with gang violence. Those problems continue to plague the region. Hurricanes hit Guatemala and Honduras recently, and climate change has made land less productive, causing people to travel to the United States even more in a gamble for a better life.
This year, shelters operators said they expected the numbers of young people could eclipse what was seen during the Obama and Trump administrations.
The Trump administration faced widespread criticism for instantly deporting minors who had arrived at the border without an adult. In November, a federal judge in the District of Columbia banned such evictions, but an appeals court overturned the ruling last month.
Mr. Biden chose not to resume the evictions, a decision that was applauded by immigrant lawyers and essentially opened the floodgates.
"Had Trump not sent all these children away, arrivals would have been staggered and we would not be where we are today," Ms. Frye said.
Expecting a more relaxed border policy, migrant families began to gather 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 discourage them.
Since US border authorities began processing migrant families in small numbers along the Texas border this month, thousands of people who had been sent back elsewhere, even from as far away as Tijuana, have come to Mexican cities near those border posts. hoping to apply for asylum.
Relief groups rush to help provide shelter and supplies for the stranded families.
A memo circulating among volunteers clearly explained the problem: "DIAPERS ARE NEEDED EVERYWHERE."
James Dobbins contributed reporting from Carrizo Springs, Texas.