The U.S. is preparing for a potential spike in migrant children crossing the southern border without their parents, and has identified up to 19,000 beds at shelters and housing sites to prevent these minors from languishing in Border Patrol detention facilities, top Biden administration officials told CBS News.
In interviews, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Cindy Huang, the recently departed director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said officials are working to avoid repeating what occurred in 2021, when a shortage of shelter bedsthousands of migrant children in ill-suited Border Patrol and makeshift housing facilities.
"We have some less than 8,700 children in our care. That's down from a high of over 22,000 about a year ago. We ended up finding shelter for those children over the course of a year. And we believe that it has been provided in a safe and humane way, and we understand that there is a constant fluctuation of the number of children we may see transferred to us," Becerra told CBS News Friday.
Huang said the refugee office, an HHS agency that cares for unaccompanied minors, has nearly doubled shelter bed space since the start of the Biden administration, expanding it to 11,500 beds. The office is also operating two makeshift housing sites at the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base and a work camp in Pecos, Texas, that can accommodate 4,000 migrant teens and thousands of additional back-up beds.
The refugee office is also reviewing additional sites to set up large-scale housing facilities in case there's a sharp increase in unaccompanied children entering U.S. border custody, Huang said. The agency already notified Congress it is setting up a housing facility at a campus in Greensboro, North Carolina.
"One thing we've been working on, and it's a lesson learned from last year, is having capacity that we can dial up and down," said Huang, who left the refugee office last week. "What that allows us to do is to respond to whatever level of referrals come, which can be highly unpredictable."
By the end of fiscal year 2022, which ends in October, the U.S. refugee office is prepared to have 19,000 beds available using $8.76 billion in funds allocated by Congress, Huang noted, saying the agency could ask lawmakers for more funding if a spike in border arrivals of migrant children overwhelms that capacity.
While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initially processes all migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, it only has long-term legal custody over adults and families with children. DHS is required by law to transfer unaccompanied minors to HHS within three days of processing them.
HHS is charged with caring for migrant children until they turn 18 or they can be placed with a sponsor in the U.S., typically a close relative. Migrant children in HHS custody remain in deportation proceedings unless they are granted asylum or other forms of legal protection, such as visas for abused minors.
Migrant arrests along the Mexican border have soared in the past year, reaching 221,000 in March, a 22-year high. Officials are expecting border arrivals to increase further once a pandemic restriction known as Title 42 is lifted, though the planned termination in late May could be delayed by Republican-led.
Title 42 is a public health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a division of HHS. Becerra said there's "nothing I'm aware of relating to the health conditions on the ground in the country that would give me reason to ask the CDC" to reconsider its decision to end Title 42 on May 23.
"I understand there are concerns at the border, on the challenges we'll face as a country with regard to migrants who may seek asylum. And those are challenges that should be addressed," Becerra said. "And I understand concerns that are being raised, but they should be addressed through the laws that address migration and border enforcement challenges."
Unlike migrant adults and families, unaccompanied children have not been expelled under Title 42 since November 2020, when a federal judgethe practice. Migrants processed under Title 42 are expelled without being screened for U.S. asylum, a legal right the pandemic-era policy has partially suspended.
Arrivals of unaccompanied children along the southern border in fiscal year 2022 have not reached the nearly 19,000 monthly record set last summer, but they've remained well above historical levels and could surpass the all-time high recorded in fiscal year 2021, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures show.
In fiscal year 2021,122,731 unaccompanied children were transferred to HHS, which released 109,030 of these migrant minors to sponsors. As of the end of April, the department had received more than 70,000 unaccompanied minors in fiscal year 2022, according to internal HHS obtained by CBS News.
The historic wave of migrant children crossing the southern border without their parents last year prompted HHS to set up 14 "emergency intake sites" at military installations, work camps and convention centers across the U.S.
The makeshift HHS sites reduced overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities. But the facilities, which did not have the same standards of care as traditional HHS shelters, were also dogged by allegations of, and mental distress among children housed there.
At the Fort Bliss tent camp, the largest of the emergency sites, distressed migrant teenagers attempted to escape, others were constantly monitored for incidents of self-harm and some were placed on a suicide watch list,in June 2021 found. A federal of the site remains ongoing.
While a dozen of the emergency sites have since closed, Huang said there are no plans to close the Fort Bliss and Pecos sites because they're being converted into "influx care facilities," which have heightened standards of care. She said the agency has deployed case managers and behavioral health specialists and expanded recreation activities at these sites.
Becerra said officials have referred "reports of concerns" at the emergency housing sites to local authorities and the HHS inspector general. He also said the bed space shortage last year stemmed from policies under the Trump administration, which expelled more than 15,000 unaccompanied minors under Title 42.
"We were handed a system of care in which those previously running it had closed their eyes to what was out there," Becerra said. "They had closed their eyes to the rule of law and how we had a legal, if not moral, obligation to provide these unaccompanied children with a level of safe care."
An influx facility for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, is expected to reopen in the coming weeks, but HHS officials said the administration has ruled out setting up "emergency intake sites" in the future.
Leecia Welch, an attorney who represents migrant children in a federal class-action lawsuit, recognized the administration inherited a depleted shelter bed system, but she criticized officials for continuing to house thousands of children at the Fort Bliss and Pecos sites, which were supposed to be temporary facilities.
"No matter what label you give these mega-sites, they are fundamentally inappropriate for traumatized children," said Welch, an attorney for Children's Rights, a New York-based group, who has inspected both emergency facilities.
The Biden administration is also preparing for the arrival of more unaccompanied children by hiring additional case managers, who reunite these minors with sponsors in the U.S. Huang said that while HHS wants children to be reunited with family members as quickly as possible, the agency is also maintaining vetting procedures to minimize the risk of minors being released to bad actors, such as traffickers.
One of the reasons the CDC has cited in its decision to exempt unaccompanied children from the Title 42 border expulsions is HHS' effort to vaccinate these minors against the coronavirus.
Roughly 69,000 migrant children have received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while in HHS care, while 21,000 minors have received two shots, internal agency data show. HHS recently expanded vaccinations for children between the ages of 5 and 11 following the FDA approval of vaccination for that age range.
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