Biden administration sends FEMA to border to help care for unaccompanied migrant children

The Biden administration is deploying FEMA to the southern border to help handle a surge in unaccompanied migrant children. Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff joins "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with more on how the administration is responding, and the conditions teenagers are fleeing in other countries.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: The Biden administration says it's deploying FEMA to the southern border to help handle a record number of migrant children being held in government custody. According to the Washington Post, over 8,500 unaccompanied minors are currently housed in shelters managed by the Department of Health and Human Services. They are awaiting longer term placement with sponsors or family members.

But there are new details about some 4,200 additional children in short term holding facilities. These minors are legally only allowed to be held for 72 hours before being transferred to a shelter. But government records reviewed by CBS News found as of Sunday nearly 3,000 were held past that limit.

Republicans are blaming the surge on President Biden's immigration policies. On Monday, House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy led a group of 12 GOP lawmakers to the Texas border to assess the situation.

For more, let's bring in Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff. He covers immigration enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security. Nick, welcome. Thanks very much for being with us. So what will FEMA be doing, exactly, at the border? And what happens after the Biden administration's announced a 90-day effort to tackle the surge of migrants?

NICK MIROFF: So what FEMA can do is they can bring in immediate logistical support for HHS in particular, which has really struggled to keep pace with the volume of teenagers and children who've been crossing the border. The reason that so many of those minors are backed up in the US border patrol stations, which are not designed for teenagers and children, is that HHS-- Health and Human Services-- hasn't had space for them.

So by bringing in FEMA, they can immediately get staff and facilities where they can start to place some of these teenagers and children who are already seeing the results. Just today, we've learned that they're moving busloads of unaccompanied minors to a site in Midland, Texas that was a former oil workers' camp. They're also planning to open up a convention center in downtown Dallas that will have enough space for more than 2,000 teenage boys ages 15 to 17.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Nick, give us some context here. How does this current influx of migrants compare to what we've seen in the past few years, and what are some possible reasons for it?

NICK MIROFF: So that's right, and viewers will remember that there was the first big influx at the border occurred under President Obama in 2014. There was another one in 2016, and then a record-breaking one in 2019 under President Trump, when nearly 500,000 family members came across the border. What's happening now is that the conditions that are driving people to leave Central America, are in many ways, worse.

The pandemic has really ravaged the region and its economies, so the desperation has increased. There were two devastating hurricanes in Central America last fall.

And there's been a change in administration. The perception that the new administration in the United States is more welcoming, is more open, that is the message that smugglers in Central America are broadcasting. And even the Biden officials are out there telling people not to go to the border.

They are hearing from their relatives who are in the United States, or who are successfully crossing, and many families are making the decision, the calculation, that now might be the right time to come.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Nick, I know you have been looking at government statistics on these unaccompanied minors. What can you tell us about why children often make this trip without their parents?

NICK MIROFF: So the statistics show about 75% of the minors who are arriving are teenagers. A lot of them are fleeing insecurity in their home countries, gang recruitment and chronic violence, but many others are fleeing desperate economic conditions. And a lot of the older teenage boys who are arriving may be trying to send money home to siblings and parents back home.

But a third very significant factor is family reunification. We know that more than 40% of these minors are eventually claimed by one of their parents already living in the United States. If one of the, or two of the parents are here in the United States, it's just part of an effort for the family to complete a family migration journey-- relocation, really-- to the United States.

And part of the reason that that these HHS shelters are so backed up is that it takes 30 to 40 days for Health and Human Services to finish vetting potential sponsors for these children who can take custody of them. And if it's not a parent, in another, say, 45% of cases, it's another immediate relative already living in the United States.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So Nick, on the question of vetting, according to your reporting, these kids often spend over a month in shelters before being placed with a sponsor or a family member. Why is the Department of Health and Human Services hesitant to speed that process up?

NICK MIROFF: Well, some of your viewers will remember a notorious incident that occurred after the 2014 influx, when some teenagers were released to traffickers who ended up taking them to an egg farm in Ohio where they were put to work. And that incident really forced Congress to crack down on HHS and its refugee office and insist that any potential sponsors who want to take custody of the children need to be thoroughly vetted. And it becomes very difficult when the adult, or when the parent in many cases, is living in the United States illegally, and HHS has to verify who they are and whether or not they're safe to take custody.

I'll also add that under the Trump administration, HHS signed an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that gave DHS access to some of the sponsor data. And that, according to many people, had a chilling effect on this process, and led for many of these adults to fear that they could potentially be arrested and deported if they stepped forward to try to take custody of a child or teen.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, so much attention, right now, focused on that southern border.

Nick Miroff. Nick, thank you very much for your time.

NICK MIROFF: Thank you.