Increasing number of unaccompanied children arriving at southern border setting off alarm bells for feds

The growing number of migrant children arriving alone at the US-Mexico border is raising alarm among officials scrambling to find enough space to shelter kids until they’re relocated with parents or relatives in the United States.

On Thursday, a senior Health and Human Services Department official briefed Capitol Hill staff about the capacity challenges facing the department, which is charged with the care of migrant children, according to a congressional aide. Jallyn Sualog, acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, shared concern over the uptick in children and limited space, noting that bed capacity is hovering around 90%, according to an aide.

The issues facing the department are exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has required shelters to draw down their capacity to account for Covid-19 precautions.

On Thursday, there were more than 1,200 unaccompanied children in Customs and Border Protection custody across the southwest border, according to a Department of Homeland Security official, who cautioned that the number constantly fluctuates. More than 100 children have been in custody for more than 72 hours, according to the official and a source with knowledge of the situation. The majority of children are over 10 years old, the source said.

Customs and Border Protection continues to take more than 300 unaccompanied children into custody daily at the US-Mexico border on average, according to the Homeland Security official. On Wednesday, border officials arrested around 360 unaccompanied children, according to a Customs and Border Protection official, who added that the majority of those arrests occurred in the Rio Grande Valley.

Unaccompanied migrant children are a particularly vulnerable population and one the US has struggled to address for years. Border Patrol facilities, designed for quick processing of adults, are not equipped to care for children. Instead, children are turned over to HHS, which runs a shelter network where they stay until they’re relocated with sponsors, like a parent or relative, in the US.

But the process has been further complicated by the pandemic.

“There has been significant growth in the number of children in custody in the last month, but the current number in custody is not high relative to a number of times during the Trump administration. What’s different now is that many of the beds that ORR had arranged to be available are not available because of Covid,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former HHS official.

There were approximately 6,800 children in the agency’s care as of February 18. In April 2019, when border arrests were climbing, roughly 8,700 unaccompanied children were turned over to ORR.

The increase in children crossing the US-Mexico border, coupled with restraints on shelter capacity, has resulted in children remaining in Border Patrol custody longer than 72 hours, according to two US officials.

“[The number is] growing. If they won’t take the kids and the kids keep coming, what are we supposed to do?” a Homeland Security official told CNN, referring to HHS.

Another official said HHS is “scrambling” to get space to house children.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency under HHS, recently opened an overflow facility in Texas to accommodate new arrivals.

The agency said it’s also authorized shelters to pay transport fees for children, including airline tickets, to facilitate their release to approved sponsors, a move that is likely less costly than keeping the children in care.

“The system itself for all unaccompanied children is being strained in an effort to both protect kids and communities from Covid and Covid spread,” the source with knowledge of the process told CNN. “The onus is being put on programming on how to mitigate concerns, how to adapt.”

In January, more than 5,800 unaccompanied children were taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection at the US-Mexico border, according to the agency’s most recent monthly data. That’s the highest it’s been since the summer of 2019 after that year’s spring surge of migrants arriving at the southwest border.

The number of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended at the border has continued to increase this month, officials said. Last year, as the pandemic gripped the country, the Trump administration invoked a public health law allowing border officials to turn away migrants apprehended at the border, including children, resulting in a low number of unaccompanied children being admitted to the US.

A federal judge eventually blocked the administration from subjecting unaccompanied children to the policy, but that ruling was later reversed by a federal appeals court. The Biden administration, however, has said it will not expel children.

“Our best option, in our view, is to get these kids processed through HHS facilities where there are Covid protocols in place, where they’re safe, where they can have access to educational and medical care,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki during Thursday’s press briefing.

“There are very few good options here, and we chose the one we thought was best,” she added.

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