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Biden’s controversial decision to reopen temporary shelters for migrant children, explained

Increasing numbers of migrant children are arriving on the border, and the shelter system for them is under strain.

Intensive care tents at a facility for unaccompanied child migrants in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
Sergio Flores/Washington Post via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The Biden administration has reopened temporary facilities to hold an increasing number of migrant children arriving on the US southern border, reviving concerns about their welfare after immigration agents forcibly separated families and kept children in prison-like conditions under former President Donald Trump.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday that his agency is working to ensure that migrant children are treated humanely and released quickly, but that it is virtually starting from scratch.

“The entire system was gutted,” he said during a briefing at the White House. “It takes time to build out of the depths of cruelty that the administration before us established.”

The Biden administration is still expelling all children who arrive with their parents on the border under pandemic-related restrictions enacted by Trump. But unlike the Trump administration, it is taking children who arrive unaccompanied into custody, straining the capacity of permanent shelters that have been forced to halve their bed space amid the pandemic.

Those facilities, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), are distinct from the “cages” in US Customs and Border Protection holding facilities that generated widespread outrage under the Trump administration. In those holding facilities, children slept with nothing but mylar blankets to keep them warm at night on concrete floors. Some immigrant advocates argue the ORR facilities are also unsuitable, but they are set up to administer care to children, complete with schooling and recreational amenities.

With those ORR facilities now at capacity, the Biden administration has reopened temporary overflow facilities, including a tent facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, that can hold up to 700 teenagers. The Miami Herald reported that the administration is also slated to reopen a for-profit emergency influx center in Homestead, Florida that once held up to 3,200 children and came under fire in 2019 following reports of sexual abuse, overcrowding, and negligent hiring practices.

The Biden administration has maintained that it has no choice but to reopen the facilities in light of capacity restrictions during the pandemic and more children arriving on the border, but that the welfare of the children remains a primary concern.

“What we are doing is working as quickly as possible to process these kids into these HHS facilities ... so we can then transfer them to families,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week. “This is a difficult situation. It’s a difficult choice.”

Mayorkas said Monday that the administration is considering having HHS personnel work alongside border patrol officers to speed up the process of releasing unaccompanied children to sponsors, who are typically family members, but can also include foster parents.

CBS reported that the administration has also allowed HHS shelters to pay for unaccompanied children’s travel expenses and is trying open up additional beds for migrant children in state-licensed shelters and foster homes. That could free up space in the permanent shelters and shorten the children’s time in confinement.

But immigrant advocates remain concerned that the children will be subjected to inhumane treatment and prolonged stays in these temporary facilities, as well as across the HHS shelter system, demanding that Biden take steps to avoid their confinement altogether.

“We must not repeat these mistakes and expose more children to the long-term physical and mental health effects of detention,” Oliver Torres, a senior outreach paralegal for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said in a statement. “To simply return to the failed model of child detention of the pre-Trump era is a missed opportunity to meaningfully reimagine our immigration system, particularly with respect to immigrant children.”

Conditions in temporary facilities to hold migrant children have raised concerns for years

There have been reports of abuses in both permanent and temporary HHS shelters for migrant children over the years, even predating Trump.

In one of the most egregious cases, migrant children were administered powerful psychotropic drugs at one shelter south of Houston, Texas in 2018.

The Homestead facility’s history of sexual abuse, neglect, and dangerous living conditions has also made it a target of immigrant advocates. Following public pressure, the Trump administration closed the facility in October 2019 and did not renew a contract with the facility’s private operator, a Caliburn International subsidiary known as Comprehensive Health Services. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will contract with a different operator or conduct additional oversight of the facility, which became a symbol of the Trump administration’s cruel policies concerning migrant children.

The facility in Carrizo Springs, which was built in 2019 to prevent children from being detained in CBP holding facilities on a long-term basis, has a better track record compared to other facilities housing migrant children nationwide.

Operated by the San-Antonio based nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, it previously had a dining hall, assembly area, and dormitories with bunk beds decorated with colorful paintings, though the orientation of the facility will have to change to accommodate social distancing protocols.

However, it’s located in a remote location, about a two hour’s drive from San Antonio, the nearest major city. That makes it difficult for government watchdogs to conduct independent oversight and ensure that the children are being treated humanely and in compliance with legal requirements.

“External oversight is really important when it comes to any kind of facility in which people are forcibly confined,” César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver who has written extensively about the immigration detention system, said. “That need for external oversight is only increased when we’re talking about children, who are the most vulnerable and the least likely to be able to advocate on their own behalf.”

Advocates also remain concerned that the Biden administration won’t act quickly enough to release children in either the Homestead or Carrizo Springs facilities to sponsors. While the government considers them “unaccompanied,” many of them have parents, other family members, or non-biological guardians in the US. In those cases, the administration should be facilitating their reunification, but the Department of Homeland Security has a long history of impeding that process, typically questioning the validity of family relationships or a sponsor’s fitness to take care of a child.

There is a “small, but severe risk” that the children might be victims of trafficking or exploitation, but DHS has often invoked that risk as justification for detaining large numbers of migrant children and making it exceedingly difficult for them to reunify with their caretakers, Hernández said.

“In the very recent past, the federal government has separated kids from adult caretakers and then imposed a host of obstacles that either make it impossible or impractical for adult caretakers to actually welcome these kids into their homes,” Hernández said. “The administration needs to embrace the fact that it is dealing with a highly problematic agency with a troubled past.”

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