Biden administration rushes to open emergency sites for record number of migrant children

Over the last few weeks, the Biden administration has been working to rapidly convert several sites throughout the Southwest, including convention centers and military bases, into large-scale emergency facilities capable of housing the record-setting number of unaccompanied migrant children seeking refuge in the U.S.

Dubbed Emergency Intake Sites, the additional facilities come in response to the difficult challenges the new administration has faced in dealing with the latest surge in unaccompanied migrant children, most of them from Central America, arriving at the border amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the latest data, released Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, authorities encountered 18,890 unaccompanied children along the southwest border during March — a 100 percent increase from February.

A young migrant boy waits for his turn to take a shower at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility in Donna, Texas on March 30, 2021. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool via Reuters)
A migrant boy waits to take a shower at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facility in Donna, Texas, on March 30. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool via Reuters)

The new intake sites, which are run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, are intended to reduce the amount of time children are forced to spend in CBP custody at the border, where insufficient space at existing facilities designed for migrant children has led to prolonged detention in overcrowded conditions. As of Wednesday, there were 4,228 unaccompanied minors in CBP custody, according to data provided by the federal government.

Most experts and advocates generally agree that any facility operated by HHS is a better environment for children than a crowded Border Patrol station. But in its rush to quickly open these sites, HHS has so far failed to offer clarity on the operational guidelines it will use there.

With the help of FEMA and the Department of Defense, HHS has either opened or announced plans for at least eight new sites so far, the capacity of which ranges from 350 to 5,000 minors each.

This week, HHS announced that three such sites, all located in different parts of Texas, would begin receiving their first cohorts of migrant teens.

“We take tremendously seriously our responsibility to make sure children are not sleeping on Border Patrol floors,” said a Biden administration official, who spoke to reporters on background Wednesday to discuss the latest CBP data before it was released to the public. The official explained that the Emergency Intake Sites are part of a multipronged effort to reduce overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities, which has also included increasing bed capacity within ORR’s network of permanent, state-licensed childcare facilities and taking measures to speed up the process for releasing children from ORR care to appropriately vetted sponsors, thus freeing up more beds for children arriving at the border.

The official described the government’s rapidly expanding roster of Emergency Intake Sites as “short-term stopgaps,” meant to ensure that “we're providing a standard of care that's consistent with the best interests of the child during a humanitarian situation.”

Young unaccompanied migrants, who range in age from 3 to 9, sit inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas on March 30, 2021. The main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, the Donna facility is holding 4,100 migrants, most of whom are unaccompanied minors, four times its pre-COVID capacity. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool via Reuters)
Unaccompanied migrant children ranging in age from 3 to 9 sit in a playpen at the CBP facility in Donna, Texas. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool via Reuters)

“We just never had anything like these Emergency Intake Sites,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former Obama administration official who served in HHS’s Administration for Children and Families division, which includes ORR.

Greenberg, who was at HHS from 2009 to 2017, understands firsthand the challenges involved in dealing with major surges of migrant children. But, he said, the Biden administration is in a uniquely difficult position “because of the severity of the gap between arriving children and available shelter space for them.”

“In February, the numbers of arriving children were big, but not the biggest ever. In March, they were probably the biggest ever,” said Greenberg, noting that “the administration keeps needing to open new facilities very quickly” to keep up with the continuing flow of children across the border.

“There needs to be screening and background checks, they need staff capacity for multiple languages, and very large facilities are a difficult setting to provide all the services children need,” he said, “and it’s all made more complicated because of COVID.”

Greenberg said that while Emergency Intake Sites are “very far short of the shelters they [ORR] normally operate, right now the urgency is to have something better than the seriously overcrowded Customs and Border Protection holding facilities.”

The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center stands on March 16, 2021 in Dallas, Texas. The U.S. government plans to transfer up to 3,000 immigrant teenagers to the center.  (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, where the U.S. government plans to transfer up to 3,000 immigrant teenagers. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

There is some confusion, however, about how these Emergency Intake Sites are being run, and what exactly distinguishes them from ORR influx shelters like the one in Carrizo Springs, Texas, that Biden reopened in February.

“We are not quite clear on what the difference is,” said Jennifer Podkul, vice president of policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, a nongovernmental organization that provides pro bono legal services for migrant and refugee children, including those in ORR care.

Podkul said KIND was recently contracted by the federal government to provide what she described as “legal services light” for kids at five of the new Emergency Intake Sites: in San Diego, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso and Midland, Texas.

Unlike the services KIND typically provides to kids in regular ORR facilities, such as legal screenings and representation in immigration court, Podkul said the legal services program it's developing for the new sites will likely be limited to some sort of “know your rights” presentation, based on the expectation that children will be held in these facilities for limited periods of time before they are released to a parent or sponsor.

“This is a totally new model,” Podkul said of the Emergency Intake Sites, which she described as “almost a bit of a hybrid” between a Border Patrol station and the influx shelters typically used to house large numbers of unaccompanied minors. She said the main difference between these types of facilities seems to be the kinds of services they provide for the children in their care. While influx shelters are not subject to state licensing requirements, they generally offer a slightly reduced version of the educational and social services provided at permanent childcare facilities.

“Whereas at these Emergency Intakes ... kids are pretty much just sitting there,” said Podkul. “There's no existing educational programming. Some have outdoor recreation, some do not, just based on the location.”

Still, she said the new intake sites are “the least worst” option available when compared with the prospect of forcing vulnerable children to sit in overcrowded, jail-like Border Patrol stations run by armed law enforcement agents, or, worse, turning them away at the border.

“I think our general perspective is that these are not great, these are not even close to ideal,” Podkul said. But “as long as they can get them out of there very quickly, as is the goal, I think that's going to be the best-case scenario for these kids.”

That said, Podkul expressed concern over the fact that HHS has been tight-lipped about the standards for these facilities and how it intends to meet them.

Minors talk to an agent outside a pod at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility run by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on March 30, 2021 in Donna, Texas. The children are housed by the hundreds in eight pods that are about 3,200 square feet in size. Many of the pods had more than 500 children in them. (Dario Lopez-Mills - Pool/Getty Images)
Minors talk to an agent at the Donna, Texas, facility. The minors are housed in eight pods of about 3,200 square feet, many of which hold more than 500 children. (Dario Lopez-Mills — Pool/Getty Images)

An internal document obtained by Yahoo News, which outlines ORR’s standards for Emergency Intake Sites, indicates that the minimum staffing ratios for these locations are significantly lower than what’s required at a regular ORR shelter or influx facility. For example, an inspector general’s report from 2019 found that ORR requires permanent childcare facilities to employ one mental health clinician per every 12 children, while the ratio at Emergency Intake Sites is 1 to 50, according to the standards obtained by Yahoo News.

It’s also not clear whether the standards outlined in the ORR document are requirements or simply suggestions or goals. For example, the document states that “ORR requires all facility staff to pass an FBI-based fingerprint check,” but the Associated Press reported last month that HHS is waiving its FBI fingerprint requirement for staff and volunteers at its new facilities for unaccompanied minors, and requiring only public-records background checks.

An HHS spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on the standards.

“I know they’re doing this really quickly, but I think ... it would be important and helpful to them to be transparent, because everyone is really worried about what’s happening to these kids,” said Podkul.

It’s unclear how much time children will end up spending at Emergency Intake Sites before they can be released to a vetted parent or sponsor. HHS has not responded to requests about the number of children, if any, who have been released from one of these locations so far. In the meantime, the volume of unaccompanied migrant children in some form of government custody continues to grow, as the number of kids arriving at the border each day continues to outpace the rate at which they’re being released. As of Wednesday, there were more than 16,000 unaccompanied minors in ORR care, according to data provided by the federal government.

However, during Wednesday’s background briefing on the latest border numbers, administration officials offered reporters evidence that some progress is being made, revealing that the 30-day daily average number of children transferred out of CBP custody increased from 276 at the end of February to 507 at the end of March.

“So we are moving in the right direction,” said an administration official. “But we know we have a lot of work ahead.”


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