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Masses of Migrant Kids Held   05/11 06:43

   The Biden administration is holding tens of thousands of asylum-seeking 
children in an opaque network of some 200 facilities that The Associated Press 
has learned spans two dozen states and includes five shelters with more than 
1,000 children packed inside.

   (AP) -- The Biden administration is holding tens of thousands of 
asylum-seeking children in an opaque network of some 200 facilities that The 
Associated Press has learned spans two dozen states and includes five shelters 
with more than 1,000 children packed inside.

   Confidential data obtained by the AP shows the number of migrant children in 
government custody more than doubled in the past two months, and this week the 
federal government was housing around 21,000 kids, from toddlers to teens. A 
facility at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army post in El Paso, Texas, had more than 4,500 
children as of Monday. Attorneys, advocates and mental health experts say that 
while some shelters are safe and provide adequate care, others are endangering 
children's health and safety.

   "It's almost like 'Groundhog Day,'" said Southern Poverty Law Center 
attorney Luz Lopez, referring to the 1993 film in which events appear to be 
continually repeating. "Here we are back to a point almost where we started, 
where the government is using taxpayer money to build large holding facilities 
... for children instead of using that money to find ways to more quickly 
reunite children with their sponsors."

   A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, Mark Weber, said 
the department's staff and contractors are working hard to keep children in 
their custody safe and healthy.

   A few of the current practices are the same as those that President Joe 
Biden and others criticized under the Trump administration, including not 
vetting some caregivers with full FBI fingerprint background checks. At the 
same time, court records show the Biden administration is working to settle 
several multimillion-dollar lawsuits that claim migrant children were abused in 
shelters under President Donald Trump.

   Part of the government's plan to manage thousands of children crossing the 
U.S.-Mexico border involves about a dozen unlicensed emergency facilities 
inside military installations, stadiums and convention centers that skirt state 
regulations and don't require traditional legal oversight.

   Inside the facilities, called Emergency Intake Sites, children aren't 
guaranteed access to education, recreational opportunities or legal counsel.

   In a recent news release, the administration touted its "restoration of a 
child centered focus for unaccompanied children," and it has been sharing daily 
totals of the number of children in government custody as well as a few photos 
of the facilities. This reflects a higher level of transparency than the Trump 
administration. In addition, the amount of time children spend, on average, 
inside 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.

   Nonetheless, the agency has received reports of abuse that resulted in a 
handful of contract staffers being dismissed from working at the emergency 
sites this year, according to an official who wasn't authorized to discuss the 
matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

   Attorneys say sometimes, even parents can't figure out where their children 
are.

   Jos, a father who fled El Salvador after his village was targeted in a 
massacre, requested asylum in the U.S. four years ago. He had hoped to welcome 
his wife and 8-year-old daughter to Southern California this year, but the pair 
were turned around at the border in March and expelled to Mexico. The little 
girl crossed again by herself and was placed in the government shelter in 
Brownsville, Texas, on April 6. Jos called a government hotline set up for 
parents seeking their migrant children repeatedly but said no one would tell 
him where she was.

   "I was so upset because I kept calling and calling and no one would tell me 
any information about where she was," said Jos, who asked to be identified only 
by his first name out of fear of endangering his immigration case. "Finally 
they told me I had to pay $1,300 to cover her airplane ticket and if I didn't 
pay, I would have to wait a month more, and I was so anxious."

   For nearly three weeks, his daughter was held inside the Brownsville 
facility before finally being released to him in late April after an advocacy 
organization intervened to get the government to foot the bill for her airfare, 
as is required by the agency.

   HHS declined to say whether there are any legally enforceable standards for 
caring for children housed at the emergency sites or how they are being 
monitored. The Biden administration has allowed very limited access to news 
media once children are brought into facilities, citing the coronavirus 
pandemic and privacy restrictions.

   "HHS has worked as swiftly as possible to increase bed capacity and to 
ensure potential sponsors can provide a safe home while the child goes through 
their immigration proceedings," HHS spokesman Weber said in a statement. "As 
soon as wrap around services -- on-site primary care, including childhood 
immunizations and physicals, case management, phone calls to family members, 
education, recreation etc -- become available as a result of additional 
infrastructure and staff, they are provided as part of the operation."

   Weber confirmed a number of specific shelter populations from the data the 
AP obtained.

   Of particular concern to advocates are mass shelters, with hundreds of beds 
apiece. These facilities can leave children isolated, less supervised and 
without basic services. The AP found about half of all migrant children 
detained in the U.S. are sleeping in shelters with more than 1,000 other 
children. More than 17,650 are in facilities with 100 or more children. Some 
shelters and foster programs are small, little more than a house with a handful 
of kids. A large Houston facility abruptly closed last month after it was 
revealed that children were being given plastic bags instead of access to 
restrooms.

   "The system has been very dysfunctional, and it's getting worse," said Amy 
Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of the nonprofit Every. 
Last. One., which works to help immigrant families fleeing violence in Central 
America. Although there have been large numbers of children arriving in the 
U.S. for years, Cohen said she's never seen the situation as bad as it is today.

   Cohen described parents receiving calls from people refusing to identify 
themselves. They are told to be at an airport or bus station in the next two 
hours to pick up their children, who have been held for more than a month 
without notice, or they wouldn't be released. Some parents are told to pay a 
travel agency thousands of dollars to have their child sent to them, she said.

   "The children are coming out sick, with COVID, infested with lice, and it 
will not surprise me to see children dying as a consequence, as we saw during 
the Trump years," Cohen said. "The Biden administration is feverishly putting 
up these pop-up detention facilities, many of which have no experience working 
with children."

   One reason so many children are now arriving without their parents dates 
back to a 2020 Trump administration emergency order that essentially closed the 
U.S.-Mexico border to all migrants, citing public health concerns about 
spreading COVID-19.

   That emergency order still applies to adults, but the Biden administration 
has begun allowing children traveling without their parents to stay and seek 
asylum if they enter the country. As a result, some parents are sending their 
kids across the border by themselves.

   Most already have a parent or other adult relative or family friend, known 
as a sponsor, in the U.S. waiting to receive them. But first they are typically 
detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, then turned over to a 
government shelter.

   "As much as having children spend days on end at CBP is unacceptable, so, 
too, is having children spend weeks on end in unlicensed Emergency Intake 
Sites," said National Center for Youth Law attorney Neha Desai. "With every 
passing day, it is increasingly critical that these children are released to 
sponsors or transferred to licensed facilities."

   Over the course of 2019, the federal government held nearly 70,000 children 
in a system of contracted shelters, mass detention camps and foster parents. 
This year those numbers are expected to be even higher.

   Some of the facilities holding children these days are run by contractors 
already facing lawsuits claiming that children were physically and sexually 
abused in their shelters under the Trump administration, while others are new 
companies with little or no experience working with migrant children. 
Collectively, the emergency facilities can accommodate nearly 18,000 children, 
according to data the agency provided earlier this month.

   "There are a lot of questions about are there standards and who is ensuring 
that they are meeting them, and what kind of transparency and accountability 
will there be," said Jennifer Podkul, a vice president at Kids in Need of 
Defense, which represents children in immigration court.

   The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project is one of several organizations that 
filed legal claims against the federal government seeking hundreds of millions 
of dollars in damages for parents who said their children were harmed while in 
government custody after being forcibly separated at the border under Trump 
administration policies. In some lawsuits, families claim children suffered 
physical and sexual abuse while in government custody, at both foster homes and 
private shelters.

   "If those children were able to come in with their parents, they could be 
released with their parents and not placed in government custody," said 
Conchita Cruz, co-executive director at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. 
"This administration should lift the current policy in order for families to 
seek asylum together."

   Biden's Justice Department is defending the government against these claims, 
which were filed in 2019 under the Trump administration. But the federal 
response has been mixed since the change in leadership. Some cases continue to 
be argued, while others are in settlement discussions.

   In a recent filing in one case currently in litigation, federal attorneys 
agreed with the assertion that these policies indeed inflicted harm.

   "President Biden has 'condemned the human tragedy that occurred when our 
immigration laws were used to intentionally separate children from their 
parents or legal guardians ... including through the use of the "Zero Tolerance 
Policy" during the Trump administration,'" Justice Department attorneys wrote.

   The judge in the case granted a joint request to pause the litigation until 
June 2 "while the parties explore settlement."

   "We want to make sure there is adequate oversight and transparency for these 
new structures and make sure that children can get out," said Podkul, whose 
organization has been holding "know your rights" training with children in the 
emergency sites. "If kids are there for more than 48 hours, kids need to know 
what to expect."

   As for the 8-year-old girl, her father, Jos, said she is adjusting to life 
in Los Angeles, enjoying playing with her older brother and, bit by bit, 
opening up.

   "She keeps asking me where her mom is, and I keep telling her not to worry, 
that she is in Mexico and she is OK," he said. "Soon I hope she'll tell me what 
it was like inside."

 
 
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