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Fewer Migrant Children Held In Border Detention Facilities, But Challenges Remain

Unaccompanied minors wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border in La Joya, Texas on April 10. The Biden administration faces big challenges as it deals with the record-breaking surge of unaccompanied minors.
John Moore
Getty Images
Unaccompanied minors wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border in La Joya, Texas on April 10. The Biden administration faces big challenges as it deals with the record-breaking surge of unaccompanied minors.

The Biden administration has been scrambling to care for hundreds of migrant children and teenagers crossing the Southern border alone daily — opening a dozen emergency influx shelters and moving thousands out of jail-like holding cells and tents that have stoked public outrage.

Still, the administration faces big challenges as it deals with the record-breaking surge of unaccompanied minors.

The number of migrant teens and children in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection fell to 2,853 this week — less than half the number who were held in overcrowded facilities near the border in late March. Another 19,000 unaccompanied minors were in the custody of U.S. Health and Human Services as of Tuesday, according to the agency.

By law, those children are supposed to be transferred to HHS custody within three days. In practice, that hasn't been happening, partly because of a lack of available space in HHS's permanent shelter system.

That bottleneck may be starting to ease. In recent weeks, HHS has been adding emergency influx shelters anywhere it can — from abandoned camps for oil workers, to big city convention centers in Texas and California, to smaller facilities far from the border in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

All told, the agency has added temporary facilities with the potential capacity to house more than 16,000 children until they can be placed in long-term shelters, or with sponsors or relatives living in the U.S.

Meanwhile, more than 400 migrant children continue to arrive at the border every day, according to the latest statistics. Earlier this week, about 100 of them were sent to their new temporary home — rustic cottages near a private lake in southern Michigan.

"We are excited to be able to create those beautiful spaces and a place for healing for some of those children," says Elizabeth Carey, the CEO of Starr Commonwealth, a nonprofit with a long history of working with at-risk kids on its campus in Albion, Michigan.

The organization is hosting a temporary influx shelter for up to 240 migrant children between the ages of 5 and 17.

"When asked by our federal government if we could help and provide a safe refuge and haven for those children, we enthusiastically said, yes," Carey said in a statement.

But HSS still has some thorny problems to solve, starting with hiring enough staff to run these emergency shelters, some of which are designed to hold thousands of migrant children.

"That is a big part of the challenge they have been facing," says Mark Greenberg, the former head of HHS Administration for Children and Families, the agency that runs the shelters.

"It can be very, very difficult to get adequate, trained, appropriate staff quickly," says Greenberg, who's now with the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute.

Another part of the challenge is political.

Republican governors in Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and South Carolina have all refused a request from HHS to find free space in their state foster care systems for the migrant children.

And Republican governors along the U.S.-Mexico border argue that the Biden administration invited the recent influx of children by lifting Trump-era restrictions, without a plan in place to deal with the consequences.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also said last week that state officials received complaints about an emergency shelter in San Antonio — including allegations of child sexual assault.

"In short this facility is a health and safety nightmare," Abbott said at a press conference last week. "The Biden administration must immediately shut down this facility."

HHS says it thoroughly investigates all allegations of abuse.

"HHS has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and inappropriate sexual behavior" at all of its facilities, the agency said in a statement.

"We will continue investigating any incidents affecting children's health, well-being and safety and will take the proper measures including initiating employee disciplinary action, termination, and reporting to appropriate investigative entities, such as law enforcement agencies and relevant licensing bodies."

Democrats have criticized Abbott for politicizing the plight of migrant children. They counter that it was the Trump administration that left HHS unprepared — by allowing the long-term shelter system to shrink last year when most migrants, including children, were turned back because of the pandemic.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington says the Biden administration is doing the best it can under the circumstances.

"Unlike the Trump administration, they're not sending kids back. They're not putting kids in cages. They are trying to process them through quickly," Jayapal said in an interview.

But Jayapal and other progressives don't like big influx shelters either, because emergency facilities are not required to meet state standards for care.

Jayapal and other Democratic lawmakers signed a letter this week urging the Biden administration to come up with a better long-term plan so this doesn't happen again.

"We need to make sure we're addressing some of the long-standing issues around quality of conditions for these kids," Jayapal said, "so that we eliminate the need for influx facilities in the future."

In the meantime, those emergency shelters are likely to be needed for months to come.

While the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has declined somewhat after a record-breaking March, it's too early to say if this is the beginning of a downward trend or just a temporary dip.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.