Biden, facing backlash over reopening shelter for migrant children, is left with few options

When the Biden administration began transporting migrant children to a Trump-era emergency influx shelter in Texas this week, it faced fierce criticism from some on the left, particularly Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who tweeted: “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party.”

Yet while critics on both the left and right were quick to accuse the White House of hypocrisy, advocates saw the move as an understandable, if less than perfect, step toward safely housing the growing number of unaccompanied minors in its care amid the ongoing pandemic.

“From our perspective, influx facilities are certainly not ideal, but it is so much better than a child sitting in a camp in Matamoros or a child being cramped in a Border Patrol facility,” said Jennifer Podkul, vice president of policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, a pro bono legal service provider for migrant and refugee children.

A holding center for migrant children
A holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)

President Biden has pledged to overhaul the U.S. immigration system and has already begun to roll back several of the Trump administration’s harshest policies, many of which caused particular harm to migrant families and children. But the decision to reopen the Texas influx shelter reveals how, in opting for a more humane approach to migrant children, the Biden administration is left dealing with some of the same tough choices that vexed its predecessors.

Despite receiving permission from a panel of D.C. circuit judges last month to resume using a Trump-era emergency health order to turn back unaccompanied minors at the border without an asylum screening, the White House has stated that the Biden administration’s policy “is not to expel unaccompanied children who arrive at our borders.”

Once these children are welcomed into the country, however, it is the government’s responsibility to care for them until they can be safely reunited with a parent or other suitable sponsor in the U.S. Thanks to existing laws and court rulings designed to protect the members of this vulnerable population, the government was already limited in terms of how and where to safely house the migrant children in its custody.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a difficult situation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday, explaining that reopening the influx facility was necessary in order to accommodate the growing numbers of unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the country while still adhering to COVID protocols. “It’s a difficult choice. That’s the choice we’ve made.”

The infirmary at the U.S. government's holding center for migrant children
The infirmary at the U.S. government's holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs. (Eric Gay/AP)

U.S. law requires that all minors who cross the border without documentation either alone or without a parent or legal guardian must be transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (a division of the Department of Health and Human Services) within 72 hours of being apprehended by immigration enforcement agents.

Depending on their age and other specific needs, the refugee office then finds the most appropriate placement for these children within its network of state-licensed childcare facilities, all of which provide medical and mental health services, case management, classroom education and recreation to children during the process of identifying and vetting a suitable sponsor — usually a parent or close relative — to whom they can be released.

Over the last few years, reports of abuse, threats and even several deaths of children held in Border Patrol custody beyond that 72-hour cutoff have offered stark evidence of the risks kids face in such settings.

“The priority, to me, is to get children out of cramped CBP [Customs and Border Protection] facilities as quickly as possible, which is even more important during a pandemic,” said Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, which advocates for the rights of displaced women and children.

However, kids can be transferred only if there is space for them in an appropriate facility. And while the Department of Health and Human Services says the Office of Refugee Resettlement has built up its network of licensed shelter beds to over 13,200 — the most in the program’s history — strict social distancing and quarantine protocols implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the program to reduce its bed capacity to roughly half that.

In light of these restrictions, and the Biden administration’s decision to continue admitting children who arrive at the border without a parent or legal guardian, HHS decided to reactivate a Trump-era temporary influx facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, in order to ensure that children can be released from CBP custody in a timely manner.

A former Job Corps site converted to house child immigrants
A former Job Corps site in Homestead, Fla., converted to house child immigrants. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Located at the site of former housing barracks for oil workers roughly 82 miles northwest of Laredo, the Carrizo Springs influx shelter housed migrant teens only for about a month after it opened in July 2019, during which time members of Congress and the press (this reporter included) were invited to tour the campground’s freshly painted bunks, colorful classrooms and air-conditioned medical tents.

In an email to Yahoo News on Feb. 2, however, an HHS spokesperson confirmed that the Carrizo Springs influx facility would likely begin accepting kids ages 13 to 17 in the weeks ahead. The facility would be prepared to accommodate 700 children in “hard-sided structures,” with additional soft-sided capacity, aka tents, available if necessary. At the time, HHS reported that approximately 5,200 unaccompanied children were in its care. As of this week, that number had increased to roughly 7,100.

“I think in the ideal world, advocates and I agree with the principle that [children] should be in small, more intimate shelters,” said Bob Carey, who served as director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement during the Obama administration. “Having said that, we’re in a very unusual time with the coronavirus.”

Medical safety has to be considered alongside other factors, according to Carey. “There are finite options if you want to maintain social distancing for kids,” he said.

It wasn’t until this week, when the Washington Post reported that HHS had begun to transport the first groups of teens to Carrizo Springs, that the Biden administration’s use of the emergency facility began to receive blowback.

In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, who acknowledged that the administration has not been in office long enough to transform “our fraught, unjust immigration system,” the Post report elicited similar reactions from other progressives like fellow New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman and some advocacy groups.

Outrage over the Carrizo Springs announcement was further compounded by a separate report from the Miami Herald citing two unnamed Homeland Security officials who said the Biden administration was also planning to reopen the Homestead facility in Florida, a massive and somewhat notorious privately run influx shelter that was shuttered in August 2019 amid allegations that children housed there were subject to prolonged detention in unsafe, overcrowded conditions and, in some cases, sexual abuse.

In an email to Yahoo News Wednesday, a spokesperson for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, which includes the refugee office, said no decision had been made yet on the Florida facility. “We will notify state and local officials well in advance of opening this or any other temporary influx care facility,” the spokesperson wrote.

Immigrant children
Immigrant children at the site in Homestead, Fla., June 2018. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The recent activation of Carrizo Springs and the possible reopening of the Florida facility have attracted criticism from both right and left, but Chavla of the Women’s Refugee Commission said the move should be seen in context. “I don't think anyone's really thrilled about using influx facilities,” she said, but added that the public perception of such shelters has been “tainted” by the abuses of the Trump administration.

Unlike the network of permanent childcare facilities funded by the refugee office, influx shelters, which are designed for temporary use in emergency circumstances, are typically not subject to state licensing requirements and operate with relatively little oversight. Under Trump, children of all ages and needs — including many who’d been forcibly separated from their parents — spent long periods of time in the questionable conditions of such facilities, like the sprawling tent city in Tornillo, Texas, or the crowded Homestead camp in Florida.

“The Trump administration used influx facilities like a regular shelter except they were unlicensed,” said Podkul of Kids in Need of Defense, emphasizing that when it comes to influx shelters, what really matters is how they’re used. “They’re not perfect, but if a kid is going to spend two weeks, 30 days there, and it’s an older kid that has a reunification in the works, that is a more appropriate use of the influx facility.”

HHS has said it expects children to be released to a sponsor within 30 days of arriving at Carrizo Springs.

Ultimately, Podkul said she hopes the Biden administration will be able to implement a better infrastructure so that it does not have to rely on emergency influx shelters in the future. In the meantime, however, “they're inheriting a chaotic emergency situation, and they need to be able to rectify that.”


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