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Record number of unaccompanied migrant children held in facilities meant for adults

Nearly half of the children — 1,400 — have been held beyond the three-day legal limit.
Image: New Tent Camps Go Up In West Texas For Migrant Children Separated From Parents
Children and workers at a tent encampment built to house migrant children near Tornillo, Texas, on June 19, 2018.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

A record number of unaccompanied migrant children are in Border Patrol custody and shelter beds are scarce, raising fears of a new humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

More than 3,200 unaccompanied migrant children are being housed in Customs and Border Protection holding facilities, two sources confirmed. The New York Times, citing internal CBP documents, first reported that the number of detained children had "tripled in the last two weeks."

Nearly half of the children — 1,400 — have been held beyond the three-day legal limit. The CBP holding cells, sometimes known as "hieleras," or iceboxes, are not designed for children. They are typically small concrete rooms with concrete or metal benches and no beds.

In addition, nearly 170 of the detained unaccompanied children are younger than 13, a source said.

Government data reviewed by NBC News show that the overall number of unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the border in February spiked to about 9,000.

Many of the children arriving at the border initially immigrated during the Trump administration but were quickly expelled under an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meant to protect immigrants and U.S. residents from Covid-19. The Biden administration reversed the policy for unaccompanied children.

As the Biden administration grapples with the surge in crossings, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last week led a team of senior administration officials to tour migrant holding facilities along the border. The White House said the officials intend to brief President Joe Biden about their findings.

Julissa Reynoso, chief of staff to the first lady, was part of the delegation.

"We did speak to many of the folks involved, including children," Reynoso said Monday. "We're trying to manage this in an orderly fashion but very mindful of the human cost here and in light of the fact that we are talking about kids. So that is something that we are managing."