For the third time in seven years, U.S. officials are scrambling to handle a dramatic spike in children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, leading to a massive expansion in emergency facilities to house them as more kids arrive than are being released to close relatives in the United States.
More than 22,000 migrant children were in government custody as of Thursday, with 10,500 sleeping on cots at convention centers, military bases and other large venues likened to hurricane evacuation shelters with little space to play and no privacy. More than 2,500 are being held by border authorities in substandard facilities.
The government failed to prepare for a big increase in children traveling alone as President Joe Biden ended some of his predecessor's hardline immigration policies and decided he wouldn't quickly expel unaccompanied kids from the country like the Trump administration did for eight months.
So many children are coming that there's little room in long-term care facilities, where capacity shrank significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, minors are packed into Border Patrol facilities not meant to hold them longer than three days or they're staying for weeks in the mass housing sites that often lack the services they need. Lawyers say some have not seen social workers who can reunite them with family in the U.S.
“As it currently stands with a lot of these emergency intake sites, children are going in and there’s no way out,” said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law. “They’re complete dead ends.”
Both Donald Trump and Barack Obama faced similar upticks in Central American children crossing the border alone in 2019 and 2014. The numbers have now reached historic highs amid economic fallout from the pandemic, storms in Central America and the feeling among migrants that Biden is more welcoming than his predecessor.
The Trump administration had predicted the strain on capacity, documents show. Projections from a former top official in the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which cares for migrant children until they're reunited with family, said the agency would run out beds by mid-January or early February. On Feb. 22, the Biden administration reopened a tent facility used during previous increases as smaller shelters ran out of beds.
The Border Patrol encountered 18,663 unaccompanied children in March, the highest monthly total on record, well above previous highs of 11,475 in May 2019 and 10,620 in June 2014.