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More than 500 migrant children have been in Border Patrol custody more than 10 days

As of Thursday, some border facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, the epicenter of the recent surge, held 10 times their capacity of migrants of all ages.
Image: Asylum seeking migrants in Penitas, Texas
Unaccompanied minors from Central America line up to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after they crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. from Mexico on a raft in Penitas, Texas, on Wednesday.Adrees Latif / Reuters

WASHINGTON — More than 500 migrant children had been in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days as of Thursday, well past the three-day legal limit, as many border facilities not built to house children have far surpassed their capacity, according to new data obtained by NBC News.

Many of the children are being held in the Rio Grande Valley, the epicenter of the recent migration surge, where as of Thursday more than 4,000 immigrants of all ages were in custody in a sector with facilities meant to hold only 715, according to the data. In the soft-sided tent facility in Donna, Texas, built to house the rising numbers in the Rio Grande Valley, more than 3,300 immigrants were in custody in a facility built for 250 as of Thursday. The numbers fluctuate throughout any given day, as some adult immigrants are quickly processed and released or expelled from the U.S.

The overcrowding is particularly problematic for children, as the border stations were not meant to house minors, particularly for long periods of time. During a surge of unaccompanied migrant children during the Trump administration in 2019, children complained of not having enough space to lie down and sleep. The Biden administration has said children are given three meals a day, regular access to snacks and occasional recreational time.

On Thursday, there were 4,500 children in Border Patrol custody along the whole southern border, an administration official said, up from 4,276 children in Border Patrol custody Sunday, according to the data obtained by NBC News.

A major cause for the overcrowding is the lack of space at facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency designated to care for migrant children.

On a call with reporters Thursday, Biden administration officials said they are working to get children out of Border Patrol custody and into HHS facilities more quickly.

"We also have a priority that children are safe and making sure that they are released from CBP custody, because we absolutely understand that those are not places for children to be long term and they need to be in a place that's suitable for children," an administration official said, adding that HHS is working on opening new facilities and creating more space in existing facilities.

Asked for comment, the Department of Homeland Security referred to a recent statement by Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: "As I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child. We are working in partnership with HHS to address the needs of unaccompanied children, which is made only more difficult given the protocols and restrictions required to protect the public health and the health of the children themselves."