WASHINGTON — Senior officials at the White House were “livid” with Health and Human Services officials on a call the two parties held on Friday to discuss NBC News reporting that migrant children had been held on buses overnight, and in at least one case four days, before being sent to their family members, according to a person familiar with the call and an administration official.
The White House officials pressured HHS to conduct a speedy investigation of the incident and to find out how many children waited and for how long and whether the contractor responsible for busing the children was to blame for the delay.
The call was the latest incident in which the Biden White House has expressed frustration with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra’s handling of the influx of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Politico previously reported that the White House pressured Becerra to speed up his agency’s intake of children in order to stop overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities.
It was unclear whether Becerra himself was on the call, which was described as “senior level.”
“This is being taken very seriously both at the White House and HHS,” said a person familiar with the call on Friday. “The White House is livid.”
NBC News reported Thursday that minors who migrated to the U.S. without their parents were waiting on buses in a Dallas parking lot 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.
In at least one case described to NBC News, a family said their 15-year-old son had waited on buses from Saturday to Wednesday before beginning the long journey from Dallas to Seattle. He was eventually flown to Seattle.
The White House responded to NBC’s reporting on Thursday, saying it was “outrageous, unacceptable and do not meet this administration’s standard for child care.”
Becerra issued his own statement on Thursday, saying, “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 contractor, MVM, said in response to NBC News’s story, "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.”
One person familiar with the discussions between the White House and HHS said while the administration still has not determined what led to the delays, it recognizes the logistical hurdles involved with transporting thousands of children to their sponsors.
The White House and HHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the Friday call.