Amid rising concerns about the "staggering" surge of unaccompanied migrant children entering U.S. custody and recent reports that raised alarm about the conditions in which they are being held, the Biden administration over the weekend ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid in the government's response.
"It is deeply concerning to see young children in facilities for days on end, unable to take a shower, call their families, or see the sunlight."
—Neha Desai, lawyer
Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed FEMA, which typically provides financial assistance during natural disasters, to support the government's efforts "to safely receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. southwest border" for at least the next 90 days.
The move came in the wake of reporting Friday from CBS News about the conditions faced by unaccompanied migrant children held at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facility in Donna, Texas. Following the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcement, CBS revealed Sunday that nearly 3,000 of the unaccompanied minors in the agency's custody had been held longer than the legal limit of three days.
CBP, which falls under DHS, is supposed to transfer most unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours. That Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agency houses the children in shelters until they can be placed with a family member or another suitable sponsor—but, as CBS noted, "with nearly 9,000 children currently in custody, the refugee agency is scrambling to expand its bed space, which had been limited by social distancing measures."
Less than 24 hours after we reported these conditions, which also included children reporting not being allowed to call family, DHS Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas announced FEMA would help process the increasing number of unaccompanied minors entering US custody.https://t.co/QLuxIZqieX
— Camilo Montoya-Galvez (@camiloreports) March 15, 2021
DHS' statement Saturday pointed out that that "since April 2020, the number of encounters at the border has been rising due to ongoing violence, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America," referring to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The New York Times noted that Troy Miller, acting commissioner of CBP, said last week that 9,457 children were detained at the border without a parent last month, up from over 5,800 in January. As of Sunday morning, according to CBS, U.S. Border Patrol had more than 4,200 unaccompanied migrant children in short-term holding facilities.
Neha Desai, a lawyer representing migrant youth in U.S. custody who interviewed nearly a dozen children at the Donna facility, told CBS that "some of the boys said that conditions were so overcrowded that they had to take turns sleeping on the floor."
"They all said they wanted to shower more and were told they couldn't," said Desai, referencing minors who were held over five days but only showered once. "One of them shared that he could only see the sun when he showered, because you can see the sun through the window."
"They were hysterically crying, wanting to talk to their family," she continued, explaining that the children were denied phone calls with family members. The attorney recognized that some of the issues that President Joe Biden faces are tied to the policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
"We appreciate the extraordinary challenge that the government faces in undoing the damage of the prior administration's immigration policies," Desai added. "That said, it is deeply concerning to see young children in facilities for days on end, unable to take a shower, call their families, or see the sunlight."
Yesterday, we reviewed government records that showed Border Patrol was holding more than 4,200 unaccompanied migrant children in its holding facilities—including jail-like stations unfit to house minors.
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~3,000 of the minors had been held beyond 3 days.https://t.co/gWcr1AylKt
— Camilo Montoya-Galvez (@camiloreports) March 15, 2021
"This is morally unacceptable," Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted in response to the reporting, noting that the Biden administration is considering opening a temporary facility in his district. "This crisis requires transparency and accountability. We must provide food, showers, safe living conditions, and legal aid."
Mayorkas, in his statement Saturday, recognized "the exceptional talent and responsiveness of the FEMA team," as well as ongoing response efforts by "the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care."
"Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child," he said. "We are working in partnership with HHS to address the needs of unaccompanied children, which is made only more difficult given the protocols and restrictions required to protect the public health and the health of the children themselves. Our goal is to ensure that unaccompanied children are transferred to HHS as quickly as possible, consistent with legal requirements and in the best interest of the children."
An HHS spokesperson confirmed to multiple outlets that the department opened a temporary facility for the children on Sunday in Midland, Texas, which comes after the Biden administration reopened a Trump-era facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas last month. As Common Dreams reported at the time, that move generated concerns among immigration lawyers and human rights advocates.
Denise Bell, Amnesty International USA's researcher for refugee and migrant rights, said that detaining unaccompanied children in such facilities "cannot become status quo," adding that "a government agency is not a parent for children."
"Kids need a place to call home," Bell said. "That's why they should be with their families, friends, and community members; this in the child's best interests."
— Jacob Soboroff (@jacobsoboroff) March 15, 2021
Asked about the surge in migrant children in custody during a Sunday interview on ABC News' "This Week," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, "This is a humanitarian challenge to all of us."
"What the administration has inherited is a broken system at the border, and they are working to correct that in the children's interest," she said. "I'm so pleased that the president, as a temporary measure, has sent FEMA to the border in order to help facilitate the children going... into [facilities] where they are cared for as they are transferred into family homes or homes that are safe for them."