DALLAS — In a vast parking lot outside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, minors who migrated to the U.S. without their parents are waiting on buses to be sent to live with relatives or sponsors, staying overnight, eating and using the bathroom all within the confines of the bus, according to the owner of one of the bus companies and advocates for the children.
The boy, Joel, came from Honduras to reunite with his mother, Doris, and uncle Elvin in Washington, all of whom asked that only their first names be used.
Joel was able to call Doris and Elvin on Saturday night, explaining he was on a bus in a parking lot in Dallas. They were then told by a Health and Human Services employee that Joel would be taken to Washington on Monday and that they should stay by the phone for directions to pick him up. But after days passed with no word on where to pick him up, they grew desperate for answers.
Monday passed with no word. Then the phone rang on Tuesday afternoon. It was Joel, borrowing a phone from a friend and again calling from the parking lot in Dallas.
"He was crying. He didn't feel good because he says he has been there for a long time. And I was surprised when he said, 'We are still here,'" Elvin said. "For me, that was like a bucket of cold water. I was wondering what was happening and no one was giving us information until he got a phone from one of the kids."
An NBC News crew on location in the parking lot Tuesday night counted nine buses total, with some coming and going. The crew said they observed kids on the buses Tuesday night and kids on the buses on Wednesday morning when the crew returned.
It is unclear how many children have remained on the buses as long as Joel. Doris and Elvin said Joel told them Tuesday "muchos niños," many children, were staying on the buses for consecutive days and nights.
Doris and Elvin were then told by HHS to expect Joel on Friday. He has spent more than 42 days in HHS care.
Within 24 hours of NBC News inquiring about the practice of holding children on buses in the convention center parking lot, Doris and Elvin were told by HHS that Joel would be flown to Seattle for reunification by Thursday. And as of Thursday, all of the buses were gone from the lot.
In a statement, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said, “This is completely unacceptable. We're quickly investigating this to get to the bottom of what happened and we'll work to make sure this never happens again. The safety and well-being of the children is our priority.”
A White House spokesperson told NBC News, “The reports of children being held in buses outside of the HHS facility in Dallas for extended periods of time are outrageous, unacceptable, and do not meet this administration’s standard for child care. This incident is being immediately and fully investigated. There is no excuse for this kind of treatment of children and we will ensure that those responsible are held accountable.”
A spokesperson for HHS said the agency "aggressively works with its interagency partners to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children are safe and unified with family members or other suitable sponsors as quickly and safely as possible."
The owner of one of the bus companies said he began renting his buses to MVM, the company that holds the government contract, last week. He says the children are supposed to be "in and out," and simply wait temporarily until there are enough children going to a certain location for a bus to depart.
But the bus company owner also said he visits his buses every 12 hours to clean them, once at 7 p.m. and once at 7 a.m. He told NBC News the buses remain in the parking lot for 24 hours, with some children waiting just a few hours and some staying on the buses overnight. All the buses have required a full mop down because of trash, food and sometimes overflowing bathrooms, he said.
From there, the bus company owner said, the buses take children as far as New York and California.
A memo sent from HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement last month instructed care providers to pay for airfare for children to be placed with sponsors around the country. Asked why children are still put on buses, the HHS spokesperson said, "Transportation services, including buses, are required to transport children to airports and to other care provider facilities as needed."
MVM, the company contracting with the government to provide transportation for migrant children, said in a statement, "Over the last seven weeks, the number of children needing escorts in this pandemic environment has increased to more than 7,100, creating challenging travel logistics and resulting in some extended wait times on their way to reunification sites. Recently, at a 24-hour regional hub where our buses meet to place the children on the appropriate geographic routes to their reunification sites, we experienced some delays that resulted in a child staying at that site longer than our target wait time of four hours. This is a violation of our policy and we are conducting an internal review of this incident. We have confirmed the child was safe during that time, in the care of our escorts and provided access to an air-conditioned bus, food and snacks, bottled water as well as masks and other PPE."
The influx of unaccompanied migrant children quickly became one of the first major challenges for the Biden administration. Since March, the government has greatly reduced the number of children in Border Patrol custody and the time they spend there, from over 5,000 children spending over 100 hours in custody on average to fewer than 500 children spending less than 24 hours on average.
Those children must be transferred from Border Patrol custody to HHS, which has felt pressure to expand its capacity and transfer children to sponsors quickly. Even with the influx, HHS was able to transfer children out of custody after spending an average of 30 days in their care, according to data obtained by NBC News in April.
But advocates say the rush to transfer could be putting vulnerable children in poor conditions.
"That our government would deem it appropriate to force vulnerable children to be stored on buses for days — with no beds, no access to appropriate sanitary facilities, showers, fresh clothing, appropriate nutrition — is deeply disturbing and represents a violation of the basic human rights of this vulnerable child population," said Dr. Amy Cohen, a psychiatrist and executive director of Every Last One, which advocates for migrant children.
Cohen says she has worked with at least one other family, in addition to Elvin and Doris, whose children have had to stay overnight in the parking lot.
Doris and Elvin say that while they remain hopeful that they will be reunited with Joel on Thursday, the days with no information have been frustrating.
"It's very frustrating not having news from him. And all of a sudden, he calls that he is still in the same place and what can one think? Nothing good," Doris said.