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U.S. officials probing conditions faced by migrant children held at Fort Bliss army base

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The Biden administration is investigating conditions faced by hundreds of migrant children held by the U.S. government at a military installation in Texas, White House officials said Friday.

Symone Sanders, a spokesperson for the vice president, told reporters that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris instructed Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra to conduct a "thorough investigation" into conditions at the tent camp inside the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base holding unaccompanied migrant minors.

CBS News reported this week that migrant children housed at Fort Bliss — one of several emergency housing sites set up by HHS this spring — have been constantly monitored for self-harm, escape attempts and panic attacks. 

Migrant children struggle at Texas site 06:45

"The administration is taking this very seriously," Sanders said on board Air Force Two, which took Harris and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to El Paso Friday. 

A White House official said later on Friday that Mr. Biden did not order a formal investigation. "While the care of children is deeply important to this administration – HHS has already been looking into Fort Bliss and numerous aspects have significantly been improved," the official said.

Some distressed teenagers at the base have been placed on one-on-one supervision 24 hours a day to make sure they don't harm themselves. Officials at the tent camp also prohibited the use of pencils, nail clippers, regular toothbrushes and metal items out of fear that children could use them to hurt themselves.

According to federal volunteers who worked at Fort Bliss, lawyers who visited the site and testimonies from minors held there, the source of the distress and frustration among children stems largely from living conditions and prolonged stays at the tent camp, which is located in the Chihuahuan Desert.

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The emergency intake site at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, on March 31, 2021. KFOX/CBS4

Representatives for HHS did not respond to a request to comment on the White House's announcement.

HHS has said more mental health specialists and case managers have been assigned to help children housed at Fort Bliss. The department has also noted the number of unaccompanied youths at the base has decreased from nearly 5,000 in late April to 1,500 this week.

According to official documents, the emergency housing site — which does not have a state license to certify it can house minors — still has the capacity to accommodate up to 10,000 unaccompanied children.

During an event on Thursday, Becerra said his department set up more than a dozen emergency sites like Fort Bliss to get unaccompanied children out of Border Patrol holding facilities, which were severely overcrowded in March. Space at the traditional shelters for unaccompanied youth had been depleted, he added.

"I will agree with anyone who says that that's not where you're going to do long-term care for a child. We get that," Becerra said when pressed on concerns about the emergency sites. 

"But it's far better than the deserts they were in," he added. "It is far better than an adult detention facility. And it is absolutely providing them, these children, with everything you would expect a child to get to provide for their basic needs and the attention they require."

Harris traveled to El Paso on Friday to tour Customs and Border Protection (CBP) migrant processing facilities and meet with local stakeholders and advocates for asylum-seekers. Her schedule did not include a visit to the Fort Bliss tent city, which sits on the outskirts of El Paso.

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