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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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,
"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."