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The thing that struck Texas Rep. August Pfluger on his first visit to an immigration intake center along the border was the look in the young migrants’ eyes.
“You see the look in their eyes and it’s just—I can’t even hardly describe the feeling that you get that they’ve just gone through something horrendous,” Pfluger said in an interview Tuesday, a day after touring the facility in El Paso, Texas that’s crowded with over 1,000 migrants, already at capacity.
As record numbers of children from Central America continue to arrive daily at the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents, troubling details of their journeys and the conditions they’re met with at Homeland Security facilities are emerging, setting up a crisis for the new Biden administration that’s gathering criticism from both sides of the aisle.
At a Customs and Border Protection site in Donna, Texas, young migrants have reported going for days without showers and access to the outdoors, their lawyers told reporters this week. In El Paso, where Pfluger visited alongside a delegation of his fellow House Republicans, children slept on thin mats on concrete floors.
“As a father, you walk through there, your heart just sinks for what the administration is doing that is resulting in these kids being exploited,” Pfluger said.
Testifying before Congress Wednesday morning, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the surge was the result of years of bad policy by the Trump administration and that the Biden administration has been rushing to stand up ad hoc sites to house the surge of children.
In Dallas, immigration officials are prepping a downtown convention center for the arrival of unaccompanied migrants expected as early as Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services said, and in Midland, Texas, 248 teenage boys moved into a former oil camp reopened over the weekend, with more arriving in the days that followed, Pfluger, that city’s congressman, said.
The weeks-long journey for migrants from Central America can be arduous, across punishing terrain and often with limited supplies. As they seek, in many cases, to escape violence and economic instability in their home countries that has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and a pair of recent hurricanes, migrants can pay thousands of dollars to unreliable smugglers. Reports of sexual abuse and exploitation along the way are common.
When unaccompanied minors reach the border, their conditions may not improve much at first. In interviews and public appearances this week, advocates, lawmakers, and federal officials described an immigration system buckling under the weight of the recent surge.
CBP intake facilities, like the one in El Paso, are not intended to house children, and some have already reached or surpassed their capacity, forcing immigration officials to fly migrants to less crowded areas along other parts of the border.
“These Border Patrol facilities are absolutely horrific,” said Paola Luisi, director of Families Belong Together, a loose coalition of more than 250 groups that provide various services to undocumented people on both sides of the southern border. “Of the six children who died under the Trump administration, almost all six, except for one, were in CBP facilities.”
Under a current court order, migrant children are only supposed to remain in the intake facilities for up to 72 hours before being moved to government-funded shelters that are better equipped to handle them, although the Department of Homeland Security admitted on Tuesday that that timeline was not always being met.
“The Border Patrol facilities have become crowded with children and the 72-hour timeframe for the transfer of children from the Border Patrol to HHS is not always met,” Mayorkas said in a statement Tuesday.
In a news conference last week, Troy Miller, the acting CBP commissioner, said showers are provided at least every 48 hours and that migrants are given three meals a day.
On Saturday, the Biden administration directed personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the border to help open new sites and lessen the overcrowding.
Since then, officials have begun plans to move migrants from the CBP facilities to emergency sites run by the Department of Health and Human Services, similar to the new facilities in Dallas and Midland, before the children can be placed in a shelter. According to Jeff Hild, an HHS deputy assistant secretary, a NASA airfield in Mountain View, California and another site in Homestead, Florida are also being considered for use in the near future, The New York Times reported.
The Midland facility, a prefabricated camp with a 700-person capacity that has housed oil and gas workers in the past, has bedrooms with attached bathrooms where the young migrants will stay for likely two to four weeks, according to Pfluger, who also toured that facility on Monday.
Officials chose the location because of its “turnkey nature,” Pfluger said, noting there will be ample space for the migrants to quarantine in case of a COVID outbreak.
The White House, which has assiduously avoided the “crisis” label for the crush of undocumented children, maintains that the surge is a consequence of the Trump administration’s immigration policies—rather than the result of migrants seeing the new administration as a green light. Many of the children now entering the United States were initially turned back under the Migrant Protection Protocols last year, effectively leaving them stranded in northern Mexico until Biden reversed the migrant protection protocols for minors earlier this year. Adults and families that present themselves at the border are still being turned away now under a public health policy that was first instituted in the early days of the pandemic by the Trump administration, while the Biden team has since dropped that blockade for unaccompanied minors.
“A lot of kids were in limbo in northern Mexico already,” said Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser for the Women’s Refugee Commission’s migrant rights and justice program. “There’s a lot of people the last administration really left in danger, and it’s accelerated very quickly.”
The inherent difficulty in procuring safe housing in the middle of a pandemic, she added, has exacerbated the problem.
“Without COVID, the situation wouldn’t be nearly to this level,” Chavla said.
In those extenuating circumstances, the government has backslid on many of its stated policies—as well as court-mandated rules—on the conditions in which children can be held in immigrant detention facilities, like the three-day policy mandated under the courts’ so-called Flores Agreement.
The administration has characterized the current housing crunch as the least-bad of “few good options,” in the words of White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“None of these Border Patrol facilities are made for children, and we want to move them as quickly as possible into shelters and then into homes,” Psaki told reporters on Monday, adding that FEMA’s involvement would hopefully speed up that process. “The president is very focused on expediting what’s happening at the border at every step in the process.”
Mayorkas was grilled on the Biden administration’s reversal of Trump-era policies of deterrence on Wednesday during an appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee, which committee Republicans blamed for the recent surge in migrant children at the border.
“Why in the world did this administration… basically shred the Trump administration’s asylum agreements with Mexico and Central America?” asked Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who called Trump’s policies that limited access to the asylum process “masterful” at preventing illegal immigration and called the current situation on the border a “crisis.”
The secretary bristled at that characterization, and forcefully decried the use of family separation as a method of deterrence.
“A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a nine-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future immigration. That, to me, is a crisis,” Mayorkas said to McCaul, adding that the Biden administration was working to “ensure that we have an immigration system that works and that migration to our country is safe, orderly, and humane.”
But to nonprofits that work on behalf of kids in the immigration system, those promises ring hollow.
Surges of unaccompanied minors at the southern border have vexed Washington politicians before, notably in 2014 and 2019, under the Obama and Trump administrations, but the government infrastructure has not been updated to meet the problem, according to Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.
“I am heartened to hear rhetoric from this administration that they are aware of that problem and interested in changing it. The problem is that they’re dealing with a significant challenge at the southern border and reforming all of our southern border infrastructure and procedures to accommodate more mixed flows is difficult while they’re dealing with this challenge,” Pierce said.
“The idea that DHS, which has $49 billion budget, can’t figure this out, to me, is the wrong conversation,” said Luisi, of Families Belong Together, noting that nonprofit groups that were left high and dry during the Trump administration were still able to cobble together critical services for undocumented people. “A bunch of ragtag NGOs could do it with one-millionth of the budget… because a child’s life was on the line.”
“The administration really has an opportunity here to live by its values,” Luisi added, “to think about how we do right by the children’s families.”
Options to relieve pressure on the CBP facilities include expanding the number of temporary housing facilities like those in Dallas and Midland, advocates say, as well as potentially expediting the licensing of traditional foster care facilities to house children in ORR or CBP custody. The Biden administration also recently lifted some limitations on the number of beds that traditional shelters that house migrant children (where the kids receive classroom education and are connected with family members or foster sponsors in the U.S.) had been under due to social distancing guidelines.
But those more permanent solutions require a top-down rethinking of how children are handled in the immigration system, said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
“The administration has to follow through on its commitment to address and invest in addressing the root causes because at the end of the day, the crisis is actually at the country of origin,” Hincapie said. “This is about my managing migration, and managing a migration flow that we expected! Because there’s none of this is unexpected.”