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FEMA deployed to help process migrant children amid overcrowding in border facilities

The Biden administration on Saturday instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help process the increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children entering U.S. border custody amid reports of overcrowding in holding facilities.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced he has ordered FEMA to help U.S. immigration officials receive and shelter migrant minors crossing the southern border without parents or legal guardians for the next 90 days.

The deployment of FEMA officials illustrates the formidable logistical and humanitarian test the Biden administration is facing at the U.S.-Mexico border due to a sharp increase in the number of migrant children being taken into custody in recent weeks.

Nearly 9,500 unaccompanied minors, most of them from Central America, entered U.S. border custody in February — a 21-month high. More than 7,000 of them were transferred to the U.S. refugee agency, which has been struggling to find enough bed space in its network of shelters. The shelters had previously been operating at reduced capacity because of social distancing measures put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The dwindling bed space at U.S. refugee agency shelters has created a massive backlog of minors in Border Patrol holding facilities, most of which were built to briefly detain adult migrants, not children. The number of children held in Border Patrol custody this week has averaged more than 3,000.

On Friday, CBS News reported that children detained at a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facility in south Texas told lawyers they were being held in overcrowded conditions. The children also reported having to sleep on the floor, not being able to call family members, having limited access to showers and not seeing sunlight in nearly a week.

In his announcement of the FEMA assignment, Mayorkas acknowledged that his department's border holding facilities are unfit to house minors.

"I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care," Mayorkas said. "Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child."

CBS News has requested access to the migrant holding facility in Donna, Texas.

A FEMA spokesperson told CBS News the agency is working with the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the refugee agency, to "quickly expand capacity for safe and appropriate shelter, and to provide food, water and basic medical care."

Mayorkas said U.S. border officials are working to transfer unaccompanied minors to the refugee office "as quickly as possible," but he noted the task is being complicated by the pandemic.

In addition to the FEMA deployment, Mayorkas said officials from other Department of Homeland Security agencies, including the Federal Protective Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), were also providing assistance with shelter operations and security.

In 2014, the Obama administration tapped FEMA to oversee the government's response to then-record numbers of Central American children crossing the U.S. southern border without parents.

While the Biden administration has so far continued to rely on a public health authority invoked by the Trump administration to swiftly expel most migrant adults and some families without a court hearing, it has allowed unaccompanied children to continue their proceedings in the U.S., as outlined by U.S. law. 

Republicans have said the rising number of children crossing the border alone stems from the Biden administration's policy changes and its pledges to undo Trump-era asylum restrictions.

On Saturday, however, DHS said the marked rise in border crossings could be attributed to poverty, violence and food insecurity in Central America, which is also recovering from two devastating, back-to-back hurricanes that made landfall last fall.

Nicole Sganga contributed reporting.

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