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EXCLUSIVE
Immigration

'Sitting on their hands': Biden transition officials say Trump officials delayed action on child migrant surge

Trump officials didn't increase capacity for child migrants despite warnings, Biden transition officials say. "They were sitting on their hands," one said.
Text books and notebooks line tables inside a classroom at a Influx Care Facility (ICF) for unaccompanied children on Feb. 21, 2021 in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
Textbooks and notebooks line tables inside a classroom at an influx care facility for unaccompanied children Feb. 21, 2021, in Carrizo Springs, Texas. The facility has dormlike rooms with areas for eating, bathing, haircuts and laundry.Sergio Flores / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — In early December, the Biden transition team and career government officials began sounding an alarm on the need to increase shelter space for the large number of migrant children expected to soon be crossing the border, but the Trump administration didn't take action until just days before the inauguration, according to two Biden transition officials and a U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions.

"They were sitting on their hands," said one of the transition officials, who does not currently work for the Biden administration and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was incredibly frustrating."

The Biden transition team made its concerns about the lack of shelter space known to Trump officials both at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security, laying out the need to open an influx shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, and to issue what's known as a "request for assistance" that would start the process of surveying new sites for expanded shelters, according to the transition officials.

It was not until Jan. 15 that then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar issued the request for assistance, which started the multiweek process of surveying and choosing new sites. The Biden administration opened the Carrizo Springs facility Feb. 22 and announced this week that it would be expanding the capacity of that site.

As of February, HHS was only able to use about half of its congressionally funded capacity because of Covid-19 protocols and a shuttering of facilities under the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Because of HHS' extremely limited capacity, unaccompanied children are now backlogged in overcrowded Border Patrol stations, reaching a record high of 5,200 children in custody last week, with hundreds held past the three-day legal limit.

DHS and HHS did not respond to requests for comment.

'The writing was on the wall'

The transition official said the need to open more shelter space was clear in December 2020, based on a growing trend of unaccompanied minors crossing the border that began to emerge in the late fall, and it was communicated to Trump officials in multiple meetings, multiple times a week.

Staff escort immigrants to class at the U.S. government's holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, on July 9, 2019.Eric Gay / AP file

"In a transition team, you don't have hold of the buttons of power. You can advise, you can strongly direct, you can strongly recommend, but at the end of the day, the outgoing administration was responsible for action and they just didn't take it. They gave no reason," the Biden transition official said.

Former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told NBC News the outgoing administration warned the Biden transition team that rolling back tough immigration policies like "Remain in Mexico" for asylum-seekers and stopping construction on the border wall would lead to increased migrant flows.

A former senior Trump administration HHS official said that when Trump left office, "we were confident we had enough beds to handle any pre-existing surge from the last 20 years."

At a cost of $250 per bed per day, the Trump administration had 13,000 beds and thousands were empty at that time. The administration was hesitant to expand beyond what it needed, the former Trump official said, but it did not account for Covid-19 social distancing restrictions that would keep facilities from using every bed available.

But a U.S. government official who served under both the Trump and the Biden administrations said nonpolitical staff also brought up the need to open more space. The official said it was "irresponsible of the Trump administration not to listen to us when we were throwing up red flags."

"The writing was on the wall," the U.S. official said. "It was not at this level yet, but if the number of beds needed was going up, what do we do?"

The capacity of HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement was drastically reduced in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Not only were existing shelters spacing children further apart, thereby decreasing the number of available beds, the Trump administration used a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authority to expel all asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied children, from coming into the U.S.

Shortly after the election, on Nov. 18, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration could no longer expel children under that CDC authority, leading the numbers of children entering the U.S. to begin climbing. That injunction was later lifted, but the Biden administration made the decision to allow unaccompanied migrant children fleeing violence to enter the U.S. to pursue asylum.

Now, DHS has employed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, usually called in after natural disasters, to help HHS quickly build its capacity in places such as Dallas and Midland, Texas. On Tuesday, HHS announced it will expand its capacity at Carrizo Springs to accommodate an additional 500 children. As of Sunday, there were approximately 10,000 children in HHS custody, while nearly 5,000 waited to be transferred to those facilities from overcrowded Border Patrol stations.