Variety of migrant youngsters in U.S. authorities custody doubled in previous 2 months
The Biden government holds tens of thousands of asylum-seeking children in an opaque network of around 200 facilities that The Associated Press has learned spanning two dozen states and five shelters with more than 1,000 children.
Confidential data from the AP shows that the number of migrant children in state custody has more than doubled in the past two months. This week the federal government has housed around 21,000 children, from toddlers to teenagers. A facility at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army post in El Paso, Texas, had more than 4,500 children as of Monday. Lawyers, attorneys, and mental health experts say some accommodations are safe and provide adequate care, while others pose a threat to the health and safety of children.
“It’s almost like ‘Groundhog Day,'” said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Luz Lopez, referring to the 1993 film where events seem to repeat themselves over and over again. “Here we are almost at a point where the government has been using taxpayers’ money to build large holding facilities … for children instead of using that money to find ways to get children back together with their godparents faster.”
A U.S. Department of Health spokesman Mark Weber said the agency’s staff and contractors are working hard to keep children safe and healthy in their care.
Some of the current practices are the same as those criticized by President Joe Biden and others under the Trump administration, including failing to vet some caregivers with full FBI fingerprint background checks. At the same time, court records show that the Biden administration is working to resolve several multi-million dollar lawsuits alleging migrant children were ill-treated in shelters under President Donald Trump.
Part of the government’s plan to take in thousands of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border includes about a dozen unlicensed emergency facilities in military facilities, stadiums, and convention centers that circumvent state regulations and do not require traditional legal oversight.
In the facilities known as Emergency Intake Sites, children are not guaranteed access to education, recreational opportunities, or legal advice.
In a recent press release, the government pointed to “restoring a child-centered focus for unaccompanied children” and shared daily the total number of children in custody and some photos of the facilities. This reflects a higher level of transparency than the Trump administration. In addition, the average time children spend in the system has dropped from four months last fall to less than a month this spring, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Still, the agency has received reports of abuse that resulted in a handful of contract agents being fired from work at the emergency sites this year, according to an official who was not allowed to speak publicly about it and insisted on anonymity.
Lawyers sometimes say even parents can’t find out where their children are.
José, a father who fled El Salvador after a massacre struck his village, said he applied for asylum in the United States four years ago. He had hoped to see his wife and 8-year-old daughter in California that year, but the two were turned over at the border in March and deported to Mexico. The little girl crossed again alone and was taken to the Brownsville, Texas government home on April 6th. José called a government hotline set up for parents who repeatedly looked for their migrant children, but said no one would tell him where she was.
“I was so upset because I kept calling and nobody gave me any information about where she was,” said José, who only wanted to be identified by his first name for fear of endangering his immigration case. “Eventually they told me I had to pay $ 1,300 to cover their plane ticket and if I didn’t pay I would have to wait another month and I was so worried.”
His daughter was held at the Brownsville facility for nearly three weeks before she was finally released for him in late April after an advocacy group stepped in to get the government to pay for her flight, as requested by the agency.
Of particular concern to proponents are mass shelters with hundreds of beds each. These facilities can leave children isolated, less supervised and without basic services. The AP found that about half of all migrant children detained in the United States sleep in shelters with more than 1,000 other children. More than 17,650 are in facilities with 100 or more children. Some accommodations and care programs are small, little more than a house with a handful of children. A large facility in Houston closed abruptly last month after it was revealed that children were given plastic bags instead of access to toilets.
“HHS has been working as quickly as possible to increase bed capacity and ensure that potential sponsors can provide a safe home while the child goes through their immigration process,” Weber said in a statement.
“The system has been very dysfunctional and it’s getting worse and worse,” said Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of the nonprofit Every. Latest. One. That helps migrant families flee violence in Central America. Although large numbers of children have been arriving in the US for years, Cohen said she had never seen the situation as bad as it is today.
One reason so many children now arrive without their parents goes back to a 2020 emergency decree by the Trump administration that essentially closed the U.S.-Mexico border to all migrants and public health concerns about its proliferation referenced by COVID-19.
Some of the facilities currently hosting children are operated by contractors who are already on trial claiming children were physically and sexually abused in their homes under Trump administration, while other new businesses with little or no experience in working with migrant children. In total, the emergency facilities can accommodate almost 18,000 children, according to data the agency made available earlier this month.
Administration officials said growing demand has led them to increase the number of beds for migrant children and that while placing children in large facilities is not preferable, it is a better alternative than keeping them at border patrol stations for extended periods of time.
The 8-year-old girl, her father José, said she was getting used to life in Los Angeles, enjoying playing with her older brother and opening up little by little.
“I hope she’ll tell me how it was inside soon,” he said.