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‘We’re not keeping up’: Biden administration scrambles to house children crossing the US-Mexico border alone

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The Biden administration is racing to find space for the growing number of families and unaccompanied children crossing the US-Mexico border alone, which may include opening more temporary facilities and providing federal funding for Covid-19 testing.

“We’re apprehending more kids than we can release,” a senior Homeland Security official told CNN. “There’s a lot of discussion about who to release to make room for these kids.”

“We’re not keeping up,” said a Department of Health and Human Services official, referring to the department’s capacity to care for unaccompanied migrant children.

The Border Patrol had more than 1,300 children in custody waiting for placement by HHS on Tuesday, roughly a 300 person increase from the day before, a source with knowledge told CNN,

HHS is charged with the care of unaccompanied migrant children until they’re placed with a sponsor, like a parent or relative, in the US, but as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and precautions to avoid spread of Covid-19, the department is only able to use a little more than half of the beds it has for children. That means capacity is about 94% full.

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas conceded Monday that the administration is facing a challenge on the US southern border, as it tries to set in place new policies and manage the flow of migrants.

“It is a stressful challenge. That’s why quite frankly we’re working as hard as we are, not only in addressing the urgency of the challenge but also in building the capacity to manage it,” Mayorkas said from the White House briefing room, adding that the Trump administration “gutted” the US immigration system.

Customs and Border Protection officials are the first to come in contact with children who cross the US border alone. After being taken into Border Patrol custody, unaccompanied children are turned over to the Health and Human Services Department.

In January, more than 5,800 unaccompanied children and nearly 7,500 families were taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection at the US-Mexico border, according to the agency’s most recent monthly data.

To expand capacity, the agency opened a “soft-sided” structure in Donna, Texas, and is constructing another in Eagle Pass, Texas. At least four more “soft-sided” facilities are being considered, though locations haven’t been nailed down, according to a senior DHS official. Additional Border Patrol agents are also being deployed to help with processing.

“Unaccompanied children are increasing across the board,” said a senior Customs and Border Protection official. “All the holding places are full, there’s a constant backlog.”

Funding for Covid-19 testing

Throughout the pandemic, the US has used a public health law that allows border officials to turn away migrants apprehended at the southern border. Just recently, Mexico stopped accepting some families from being returned. A new law in Mexico, combined with social distancing in US detention centers, has created a lack of space for migrants, forcing CBP officials to release families into the US.

In south Texas, McAllen asked the state for thousands of Covid-19 tests to test migrants being released. A local shelter run by Catholic Charities is administering the tests. The Biden administration is considering building on that with federal assistance.

One plan being discussed is providing grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to localities to acquire Covid-19 tests and distribute those tests to migrants who are released, according to the senior DHS official.

CNN reached out to DHS for comment.

But that still doesn’t solve for unaccompanied children who can’t be released without a sponsor, like a parent or relative, lined up.

Exploring ways to speed things up

To expedite the process, the Department of Homeland Security is exploring placing HHS personnel in Border Patrol stations to immediately kick off the placement process and determine whether a child has a relative in the US, Mayorkas said Monday, calling it a “reengineering” of the process.

“It is an idea that’s being considered, but there are a number of complexities that we want to make sure we’re getting right,” said the HHS official.

A senior CBP official, who supports the proposed plan, said having HHS personnel at facilities could help diminish the lag time in communicating between agencies and speed up the process of moving children out of Border Patrol custody. A similar process exists with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to facilitate the transfer of adults to ICE custody.

In a separate effort to speed up vetting of sponsors for children, HHS is working on a data technology system that would update information in real time and connect with the FBI for background checks, shaving hours, if not days, from the process without cutting corners, the HHS official said.

The system is expected to be rolled out this summer, but the data is already being used to help discharge children more quickly, the official added.

Until a child is released to a sponsor, though, HHS still has to find room to place them in its shelter network. To do that, the agency is adjusting its guidelines, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to bring more beds online by loosening some of the precautions put in place earlier in the pandemic. That includes double masking, encouraging staff to get vaccinated, adding more testing, cohorting kids to allow more than one to a room, and standing up more licensed facilities.

“[We’re] making sure that we are implementing good public health policy but not in a way that goes in excess and then puts kids more at risk for Covid-19 and other child welfare concerns at Border Patrol stations,” the HHS official said.

Asked whether another overflow facility is being considered, the official said no decisions have been made yet, but added “we’re looking at all our options.” HHS recently opened an overflow facility in Texas to accommodate new child arrivals.

“The flow over the border is increasing quite dramatically, which will become a serious problem. We’re not there yet, but if trends are indicators, we’re not trending in a good direction,” the CBP official said.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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