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FEMA to help process migrant kids as lawyers reveal disturbing conditions they endure

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The Biden administration is enlisting FEMA to help process the record number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S., Mexico border as lawyers detail the harrowing conditions migrant children shared with them at a facility in Donna, Texas. CBS News immigration reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez joins CBSN's Nikki Battiste to discuss how conditions in the facility became so deteriorated and how the Biden administration aims to alleviate the overcrowded facility.

Video Transcript

NIKKI BATTISTE: The Biden administration has announced a new plan to help alleviate the overcrowding of migrants on the southern border of the United States. President Biden has ordered FEMA to help with the unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors. Hundreds of these children cross into the US every day.

The announcement comes as we are learning more about the conditions at one of the facilities where they are being held. Lawyers monitoring the border situation tell CBS News the children claim they never saw the sun, rarely had a chance to shower or go outside.

For more, let's bring in CBS News immigration reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez. Camilo, tell us about these conditions, which sound awful. What is it like for kids at this Border Patrol facility in Donna?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Hi. Good afternoon, Nikki. That's right. Lawyers who conduct oversight as part of a federal court case over the landmark Flores settlement agreement interviewed this week some of the hundreds of migrant children detained at a Customs and Border Protection holding facility in Donna, Texas. And the children really described some deeply concerning conditions, including overcrowding.

The children reported having to sleep on the floor, taking turns to accommodate the space they had, the very limited space they had, only showering once in as many as seven days, being hungry on several occasions, and being denied calls to communicate with their family members outside of the facility. One of the children, according to the lawyers, said that he had not seen the son while in Border Patrol custody. And some of the children were crying, according to the lawyers, including siblings of different genders who had been separated and placed in different sections of the facility because of their different genders.

And the Department of Homeland Security, Nikki, has not contested any of these allegations. On the contrary, the Department has conceded that it is currently struggling to house and process the current number of migrant families and unaccompanied minors entering US border custody. It has also acknowledged that this particular facility in South Texas has been over its pandemic-era capacity for weeks now.

According to an internal government document that we obtained, Nikki, this specific facility, last week, was at over 700% capacity. And that goes to show you the level of overcrowding in these facilities.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Camilo, conditions the lawyers describe, as we see video as you were talking of how young-- it's a reminder how young these children are. The conditions sound horrific and heartbreaking. How did the conditions get to this point?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Well, we've seen a sharp increase, Nikki, in the number of unaccompanied minors entering US border custody along the US-Mexico border for weeks now. In February alone, nearly 9,500 unaccompanied children were taken into border custody. More than 7,000 of these minors were sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged by law to house these minors.

But the agency is currently operating under reduced capacity because of social distancing policies. And it is scrambling to find space to accommodate the large numbers of children that are entering border custody. It is even looking at opening so-called influx facilities in Florida, at a military installation in Virginia, as well as a federal airfield in northern California. That's how dire the current situation with the bed space is.

And because this refugee agency does not have enough bed space for these children, they are now stuck, many of them, in these Border Patrol facilities which were built mainly to detain adult men not children.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Camilo, Biden administration officials, as you know, have been blaming four years of Trump immigration policies for the current situation. Did the previous administration's restriction set up conditions for this influx of migrants?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Well, that's certainly what the Biden administration has said. Some advocates have also voiced a similar sentiment. They believe that because the Trump administration made numerous restrictions to US asylum law and required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their court proceedings, for example, and implemented an unprecedented public health policy to expel families, unaccompanied children, and single adults without a court hearing or an asylum interview, that there is pent-up demand for people to make an asylum claim to reunite with family members here in the US.

What is important to note, Nikki, is that the only policy change that has been implemented so far at the border is in regards to unaccompanied children. They have been protected by the Biden administration from these rapid expulsions that were authorized by public health law. The other restrictions for families and adults remain in place.

NIKKI BATTISTE: You touched a little bit on this. Is there anything else the Biden administration is doing to address this crisis?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has authorized the refugee agency to return its bed space to pre-pandemic levels. And so far, the agency has added an additional 200 beds. But that is not nearly enough to accommodate the increasing number of children that are arriving at the southern border.

It has also started to place social workers and child welfare officials at these Border Patrol stations to expedite the release of children because remember, Nikki, these unaccompanied minors by law have to be placed with sponsors in the US who are typically family members. So the Bush administration is trying to figure out ways to expand bed space for these minors and to expedite the release. But those strategies, so far, have not met the demands of the current numbers we're seeing along the US-Mexico border, Nikki.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Camilo Montoya-Galvez, thank you for your very important reporting.