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Refugee agency to fast-track release of some migrant children with parents in the U.S.

Biden administration to house migrant children
Biden administration scrambles to house thousands of migrant children as border crossings surge 06:42

The federal agency charged with housing unaccompanied migrant minors issued guidance on Monday directing shelters to expedite the release of some children with parents or legal guardians in the U.S. willing to care for them, according to an internal memo obtained by CBS News.

This guidance is the Biden administration's latest effort to address the soaring number of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border and straining the U.S. government's capacity to house them in child-appropriate facilities. By releasing children already in custody more quickly, the government can make additional beds available for new arrivals. 

Over the weekend, approximately 5,000 unaccompanied minors were stranded in short-term Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities, most of which are not designed to hold children. Many have not been transferred out of U.S. border custody because of a lack of bed space at shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.

In recent weeks, the refugee office has been opening new emergency facilities and scrambling to reactivate shelter beds that had been taken offline to enforce social distancing during the pandemic. The agency is currently housing more than 11,100 unaccompanied children, including 1,500 teenage boys in a Dallas convention center that was converted into a makeshift shelter earlier this month.

U.S. Homeland Chief Says 'Border Is Closed' As Crossings Surge
A child walks past tents at a makeshift housing camp for migrants seeking asylum hearings in Tijuana, Mexico, on Sunday, March. 21, 2021. Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Monday, San Diego officials announced that the Health and Human Services Department plans to convert the city's convention center into another temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors. The installation would be the fifth emergency or influx housing facility for migrant children opened under President Biden, as well as the first one outside Texas.

U.S. law and a landmark court settlement require the refugee agency to release children to sponsors, who are typically family members living in the U.S. The guidance the refugee agency sent to its shelters on Monday is designed for children designated as "category 1" minors, or youth who have parents or legal guardians in the U.S. willing to house them.

The guidance says that children with "category 1" cases are eligible for the new expedited release process unless they are "especially vulnerable"; if their cases require a legally-mandated home study; or if red flags are identified in regards to the parents or legal guardians seeking to sponsor them.

Biden administration scrambles to house thousands of migrant children as border crossings surge 06:42

The new process allows caseworkers to partially fill out applications necessary for the release of children during interviews with their parents or legal guardians, instead of having the prospective sponsors complete the forms by themselves. The partially completed documents would be mailed to the sponsors after children are released, according to the memo.

Parents would still undergo public records checks to determine whether there's any "derogatory information" about them that would lead the refugee agency to deny a child's release. Under the expedited process, however, other non-sponsor adult household members would not have to undergo background checks.

Caseworkers working on eligible "category 1" cases would also skip a supervisory level of approval and go straight to refugee office field specialists to request a child's release. Under the new guidelines, would-be sponsors can text or email photos of documents to verify their identity.

Monday's guidance also authorizes shelters to cover the travel costs of parents traveling to pick up children in the refugee agency's custody, as well as their return trips.

Representatives for the refugee office did not respond to requests to comment on Monday's directive.

Earlier in March, the refugee agency rescinded a Trump-era agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that allowed certain information on prospective sponsors of unaccompanied children to be shared with immigration authorities — which Biden administration officials said created a "chilling effect" for undocumented families. 

Since its implementation in 2018, the agreement was limited several times. But Biden administration officials said its official termination will encourage family members to sponsor unaccompanied children and get them out of custody more quickly.

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