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Uptick in minors crossing border may result in Biden administration's building more shelters

"This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
Image: Children play as people who are seeking asylum in the United States are gathered outside the El Chaparral border crossing on Feb. 19, 2021 in Tijuana, Mexico.
Children play as people who are seeking asylum in the United States gather outside the El Chaparral border crossing Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday.Mario Tama / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A recent increase in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border means a new temporary shelter can house only 10 percent of the 7,070 unaccompanied minors held by the U.S., according to new data obtained by NBC News, which may force the Biden administration to build more such shelters.

In January, 5,871 unaccompanied immigrants under age 18 crossed the border, up from 4,995 in December, according to data from Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.

The number of migrants crossing the border often goes up during the transition between presidential administrations, but a Health and Human Services official who spoke on condition of anonymity also attributed the increase to the Biden administration's allowing migrants to enter the U.S. who had otherwise been kept out by the Trump administration.

The number of unaccompanied asylum-seekers who wind up in shelters run by HHS is expected to keep climbing. Advocates and some members of Congress say the administration should find alternatives to care for them rather than build more temporary facilities.

"This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a tweet reacting to the news of Monday's opening of the facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, for migrant children ages 13 to 17. The facility is the first of its kind to have been opened during the Biden administration.

According to the data, as of Sunday, one day before the opening of Carrizo Springs, HHS's child migrant shelters were at 93 percent of their operational capacity but only 53 percent of the capacity funded by Congress. They were receiving an average of 252 new children a day last week, while they were able to discharge only 97.

The HHS official who spoke on condition of anonymity attributed much of the backlog to the winter weather emergency in Texas, which delayed flights for children to get to sponsors.

The official said that the agency's capacity at permanent facilities has been reduced by 40 percent because of Covid-19 measures and that reopening some of the facilities could take more than a year. The official said that HHS would like to reopen more of the permanent facilities but that it has not ruled out opening other temporary influx shelters like Carrizo Springs.

"None of us want to open influx facilities, but even more so, none of us want kids in CBP custody for longer than they have to be," the HHS official said. "So this is a short-term immediate stopgap until we can continue to build the licensed facility care provider network ... and to release them to proper sponsors, as well."

The Miami Herald reported that the Biden administration already plans to reopen what was previously known as the Homestead Detention Center in Florida, now known as the Biscayne Influx Care Facility, as a temporary shelter to take in migrant children. The HHS official said nothing has been decided about whether to reopen the facility.

The data, however, suggest that the Biden administration may need to expand beyond Homestead and Carrizo Springs, at least under existing rules governing the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children who arrive at the border.

While the number of children arriving at the border without parents or legal guardians is rising, so is the time it takes HHS to find relatives or other sponsors to house them in the U.S. while they wait for asylum hearings.

The lag between the number of children going into the facilities and the number of those able to be sent to live with sponsors is due to a rigorous vetting process by HHS. In 2014, during an influx in unaccompanied migrant children, HHS sent eight Guatemalan children to work in poor conditions on an Ohio egg farm, according to court documents. The incident triggered calls for sponsors to be more fully vetted before they take in migrant children.

Of particular concern is the time children spend in CBP processing facilities. Under federal law, they should not be held for more than 72 hours, but when HHS facilities became overcrowded during an immigration surge in mid-2019, more than 1,400 children were waiting longer than that as of May 31, causing some to go without baths or beds.

As of Sunday, according to the new data, only nine children had been waiting in CBP facilities over 72 hours, while 709 were awaiting transfer to HHS.

A DHS official said in a statement: "While in CBP custody, children are cared for in a manner consistent with the CBP Transport, Escort, Detention and Search Policy (TEDS). Border Patrol agents and medical staff will provide safety, security, and basic medical care for the children consistent with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines."

Temporary government influx shelters on federal property are not governed by the same child welfare regulations that apply to permanent shelters.

The facilities were first used during the Obama administration, but at the height of the Trump administration's family separation policy, after dozens of permanent facilities reached capacity, the administration relied on the Homestead, Florida, facility and a second tent city in Tornillo, Texas.

Both facilities were criticized during the Trump administration for their treatment of migrant children during and after the family separation crisis in 2018.

The Carrizo Springs facility was opened in 2019 to house minors, but it was closed after a month.

The migrant child advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense said in a statement that the temporary shelters should "only be used when truly necessary and unavoidable, and must be bound by minimum standards that provide for children's safety and appropriate care, and that limit the use of such facilities to the briefest duration possible."

Other groups, however, have called for the Biden administration to rush resources to the border so they do not have to use the temporary facilities for children.

"It really should be an absolutely last resort," said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services for the National Immigrant Justice Center. "We're probably pivoting to the influx facilities more quickly than we need to, and it comes at the expense of some of the alternatives," including sending a surge of child welfare experts to border facilities to vet children and families soon after they arrive.