The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) document dated Tuesday, March 2, showed that the children were being held by an average of 77 hours. This exceeds the court-mandated 72 hour limit for holding unaccompanied minors in Border Patrol custody.
Based on the document, CNN believes that Border Patrol apprehends, on average, 340 migrant children illegally crossing the United States-Mexico border over a 21-day period.
After being taken into Border Patrol custody, unaccompanied children are turned over to the Department Health and Human Services (HHS). The growing number of unaccompanied children coming into U.S. custody has made it more difficult for the HHS to house them, given limited shelter capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If left unchecked, their numbers in coming months could break the record set in May 2019 when 11,000 underage migrants were taken into Border Patrol custody.
“We are seeing minors up and down the line. In South Texas, we are being hammered,” said one Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who spoke under the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk publicly about the situation.
Because of precautions to avoid the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, HHS could only use a little more than half of the beds it has for children.
During the previous administration, border officials turned away the vast majority of migrants, including children, under an emergency public health law invoked by former President Donald Trump at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Biden administration is no longer applying that law to unaccompanied children and some families, resulting to more people in custody. (Related: Mexican journalist exposes Joe Biden for signing compact that created influx of child trafficking, immigrant children in cages.)
More than 5,800 unaccompanied children and nearly 7,500 families were taken into custody by CBP at the U.S.-Mexico border in January, according to the agency’s most recent monthly data. Those numbers are expected to increase.
They are now crowding border processing facilities and straining government shelters.
Meanwhile, more than 600 people of all ages are in custody in a space designed for 104 in Yuma, Arizona, while more than 2,000 people were in custody in a space for 715 in Rio Grande Valley. Those figures fluctuate daily.
Shelters built, reopened to accommodate migrants
CBP opened a “soft-sided” structure in Donna, Texas, and is constructing another in Eagle Pass, Texas, to expand its capacity to house migrants. At least four more “soft-sided” facilities are being considered. Additional Border Patrol agents are also being deployed to help with processing.
At the same time, the Biden administration reopened a temporary shelter last month in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to house up to 700 migrant teenagers. The shelter was originally closed in July 2019 after a number of children apprehended at the border declined to be transferred there.
“It seems this administration can’t think their way through to a new way to handle the situation,” said Joshua Rubin, an activist with Witness at the Border which was preparing to stage protests outside a soon-to-reopen migrant children’s center in Florida. “Spending time in these large, impersonal places traumatizes them.”
The move also drew criticism from within Biden’s own party. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter that “this is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay – no matter the administration or party.”
One possible solution suggested by the critics of the Biden administration’s policies would be to allow the children to promptly join their families as most of them arrive with the address and phone number of a relative in the U.S.
The critics have also said that quarantines are not necessary for children who test negative for coronavirus at the border. Currently, most of the children are being placed under coronavirus quarantine for 10 days before being shuttled to shelters around the country.
Border pressure had waned under Trump, who put into place a bevy of policies that effectively blocked migrants from entering the U.S. to request asylum. But Biden undid most of his predecessor’s work. Within days of taking office, he had signed a series of executive orders to reverse several of the measures implemented during the Trump administration.
Now, the pressure is back at the border and rising fast. Biden’s administration has little time to make the preparations needed to manage the substantial increase in new arrivals. Those preparations include ramping up border facilities, adding to the staff and coordinating with Mexico.
But the Biden administration refuses to call the situation a crisis, instead referring to it as a challenge.
“It is a stressful challenge. That’s why, quite frankly, we’re working as hard as we are, not only in addressing the urgency of the challenge but also in building the capacity to manage it,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
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