The Biden administration is preparing to close some emergency shelters for unaccompanied migrant children just weeks after considering expanding one of the sites.
The move comes in the wake of testimonials from kids that shed light on the subpar conditions at some of the sites and that have opened up the administration to criticism from immigration advocates and attorneys.
Over the spring, the Biden administration stood up more than a dozen so-called emergency intake sites to alleviate overcrowding at border facilities and accommodate a record number of unaccompanied migrant children. Among the largest of those is a facility at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, that has a potential capacity of up to 10,000 beds. Attorneys who previously visited the facility have likened it to “warehousing” hundreds of children.
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In court filings submitted last week, children generally reported being permitted outdoor recreation for “as little as one hour daily,” having little to no privacy, sleeping during the day to pass the time and limited calls with family.
Officials previously discussed doubling the population at Fort Bliss — from 5,000 to up to 10,000 children — potentially making an already difficult situation even worse.
Now the Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with the care of migrant children, is weighing how and when Fort Bliss will close, among other temporary sites, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters Monday. But looming over those decisions is the uncertainty over how many unaccompanied children will arrive at the US-Mexico border in the coming weeks after a surge earlier this year left the Biden administration scrambling and facing media scrutiny over the handling of the border.
In May, Border Patrol encountered 13,906 unaccompanied migrant children along the US southern border, down slightly from April and March, according to the latest available data from US Customs and Border Protection.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris directed the HHS secretary to visit the Fort Bliss site, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN’s Juan Carlos López on Monday.
“The President and the vice president have directed Xavier Becerra to ensure that the HHS facilities that shelter unaccompanied children comply with the highest standards under federal law,” Mayorkas said.
Becerra’s visit to the El Paso region, which came on the heels of Harris’ trip to the US-Mexico border Friday, was part of a series of visits to HHS facilities, he told reporters Monday, declining to say whether it stemmed from reports of subpar conditions. “This visit today was to see the continued progress that we’ve made,” Becerra said, noting that he’s visited Fort Bliss before.
“In terms of any reports or allegations of lack of care or abuse, we handle those immediately, whenever we get the reports,” he said. “We handle each one as they come.”
There are currently 790 unaccompanied migrant boys at the facility. That’s down from a previous high of 4,400 children. As of Sunday, there were 14,233 children in HHS care, according to government data.
Carlos Holguín, one of the attorneys who visited the intake sites, said in a court filing that “the stressor children most frequently reported at Fort Bliss was not knowing how long they would remain separated from loved ones.”
“The children I spoke to appeared visibly distressed when recounting how they felt seeing more and more of the children with whom they had arrived at Fort Bliss released, leaving them to wonder whether they had simply fallen through the cracks and been forgotten,” he said in a declaration.
HHS has a licensed bed capacity of around 13,500 equipped with a myriad of services, such as education and recreation, but given capacity constraints related to the pandemic, the department has had to rely on temporary sites to accommodate children. As the number of children declines, the department has been increasingly relying on — and attempting to grow — its licensed bed capacity.
There are more kids in licensed bed facilities than in emergency intake sites, Becerra said Monday.
“We will continue to ramp down on the emergency intake sites as we can accommodate the kids that we currently have or are projecting to have, but we have to have a place that they can stay, because we all agree that adult detention facilities at [Customs and Border Protection] are not the place for children and certainly we’re not interested in having kids out on their own without knowing where they are,” Becerra said, later adding that dates when leases end will dictate when sites close in some instances.
Sites set up at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas and the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio have already shuttered.
Generally, the pop-up facilities took the shape of emergency shelters, offering basic necessities but falling short of providing other services, like education and case management, to the hundreds of children housed at the sites. Conditions at emergency intake sites can vary — and regularly change — but in some cases, the rapid pace at which sites were set up contributed to their shortcomings.
“In the rush to try to move kids from Border Patrol to this, they’ve gone places, they’ve gotten companies, contractors that in my opinion don’t have the experience but they were in such a rush to get them out of the Border Patrol facilities and claim victory,” said Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas.
In Houston, the National Association of Christian Churches, which had been helping to shelter children, was abruptly closed in April. The girls who stayed at the facility described fainting spells, inadequate food or a lack of food, not enough clean clothes, and restrictions that barred them from using the restroom after 10 p.m.
An incident that alarmed migrant teens at the Houston facility has also been reviewed by the HHS inspector general for “appropriate action,” according to the IG’s director of communications.
“Some of the girls in my section heard that that there was a woman that showed up in the middle of the night who didn’t work at the facility. The woman tried to take a girl away, but one of the guards stopped her. There was a van with two men smoking outside,” a 17-year-old from El Salvador said in a testimonial.
“I heard that one of the girls was almost abducted by a lady dressed in black. The girl was able to escape but the people trying to abduct her said they would come back for her. It scared me and scared everyone,” said a 17-year-old from Honduras in another declaration.
HHS referred the matter to the inspector general for investigation, according to a source familiar. Tesia Williams, the director of communications for the HHS Office of Inspector General, told CNN the inspector general was in receipt of the referral and that it’s been reviewed for “appropriate action.”
Asked about the incident, HHS said it “takes its humanitarian mission seriously.”
“Any allegations of mistreatment or misconduct by contractors, federal staff, or volunteers are treated with the utmost seriousness and require care providers to report and document all significant incidents in accordance with mandatory reporting laws, state licensing requirements, federal laws and regulations, and ORR policies and procedures. The safety and security of each child in our care is always our top priority,” the department said in a statement to CNN.
Becerra said Monday that HHS has severed contracts with those who don’t meet the department’s standards.