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Data show growing backlog of unaccompanied migrant children in Border Patrol custody

The influx of unaccompanied migrants under 18 is due in part to the Biden administration's reversal of a Trump policy that expelled unaccompanied children.
Image: Migrants walk across the Paso del Norte international border bridge from the Mexican side to continue their asylum request in the United States
Migrants under the Migrant Protection Protocols program walk across the Paso del Norte international border bridge from Mexico to continue their asylum requests in the U.S. on Monday.Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

WASHINGTON — U.S. Customs and Border Protection had 1,763 unaccompanied migrant children in its custody as of Tuesday, 625 of whom had been held more than 72 hours, the legal limit for holding children in CBP's border processing facilities, according to internal CBP data obtained by NBC News.

The data also showed that 95 of the 625 who had been waiting more than 72 hours for transfer to custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, were under 13 years old.

The influx of unaccompanied migrants under 18 at border facilities is due in part to the Biden administration's reversal of a Trump-era policy that expelled unaccompanied migrant children, along with all other migrants, under provisions invoked during the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act, migrant children who cross the border without parents or legal guardians are supposed to be transferred to HHS custody within 72 hours. CBP facilities are not designed to house children for extended periods, while at HHS facilities they have access to school, outdoor space and child welfare professionals. Caseworkers for HHS can help match children with relatives or sponsors who can care for them while they go through their immigration court proceedings in the U.S.

At the end of May 2019, when a surge of unaccompanied migrant children at the border meant children were sleeping on concrete while they waited in Border Patrol custody, more than 1,400 children had been waiting for transfer to HHS facilities for more than 72 hours.

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President Joe Biden was briefed about the spike in unaccompanied migrant children Tuesday at the White House, where he was told that this year's surge could top the record of 76,000 unaccompanied children who crossed the border in 2019. Asked whether there was a crisis, he told reporters, "We'll be able to handle it, God willing."

Immigration and child welfare advocates have criticized the Biden administration for opening temporary influx facilities, which are unlicensed, but they have said being housed in the facilities is better than waiting in Border Patrol custody.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday that his agency is considering "co-locating" HHS personnel in Border Patrol stations who can match children quickly with sponsors without bringing them into the custody of HHS at all.