WASHINGTON – Thousands of immigrant children are assisted in United States detention centers on the border with Mexico. This is part of a surge in Central American immigration from poverty and violence that President Biden’s attempt to create a more humane approach to those seeking access could overwhelm the country.
The number of migrant children detained along the border has tripled in the past two weeks to more than 3,250. This emerges from New York Times records, many of which have been held in prison-like facilities longer than the three legal days.
The problem for the administration is both the number of children crossing the border and what to do with them when they are in custody. According to the law, the children should be placed in emergency shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, but due to the pandemic, shelters limited the number of children they could take until last week.
The growing number of unaccompanied children is only one element of an escalating problem on the border. Border officials encountered a migrant at the border about 78,000 times in January – more than twice as often as a year ago and higher than in each January of a decade.
Immigration officials are expected to announce this week that there were nearly 100,000 arrests in February, including encounters at port entrances, according to people familiar with the agency’s latest data. Another 19,000 migrants, including adults and children, have been caught by border officials since March 1.
“We are at a turning point,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policies at the Bipartisan Policy Center, an independent research group. “How quickly can the government process people safely and humanely?”
The situation is similar to the great wave of migrant children filling detention centers in 2014, which preceded the crackdown by President Donald J. Trump. Seven years ago then Vice President Biden traveled to Guatemala and declared that “the current situation is untenable and unsustainable”.
Now Mr Biden faces a migration challenge of his own – one his administration has not labeled a “crisis” but which could nonetheless become a powerful political weapon for his Republican opponents and intensify his efforts to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants.
The president has proposed overhauling the country’s decade-old immigration system by making it easier for asylum seekers and refugees, expanding legal channels for foreign workers, increasing opportunities for family-based immigration and significantly reducing the risk of mass deportation. His State Department announced Monday that foreigners who were refused entry under Mr Trump’s travel ban after January 20, 2020 could try to obtain visas without paying additional fees.
However, his approach of largely reopening the nation’s borders to vulnerable children, which he hopes will be a welcome contrast to Mr Trump’s erection of legal and physical barriers, is already threatened by the grim realities of the migratory patterns that the globe follows has years. After Mr Trump’s defeat, migrants are feeling a change in tone and approach and are once again fleeing poverty, violence and the hurricane devastation north towards the United States.
Hundreds of migrant families are also being released to the US after being arrested at the border, leading to predictable attacks by conservatives.
Liberal politicians denounce the expansion of prisons and railings against the continued introduction of Trump-era rules designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus through immigrants. And lawyers for families separated on the border during Mr Trump’s administration are putting pressure on the president to move faster to reunite them.
Together, it put Mr Biden on the defensive in the early days of his presidency as he tried to demonstrate a tone very different from that of his predecessor.
The immigration system that Mr Biden envisages will take months, if not years, to be fully implemented, forcing the administration to look for space for children and to rely on one rule for the time being, which adults and most families are quick to adopt back to their home countries.
At the moment, Mr Biden has broken from his predecessor by not applying the pandemic emergency rule to children, which means the United States will continue to be responsible for care until they are placed with a sponsor.
More than 1,360 of the children detained in border detention centers were detained longer than the 72 hours allowed by law, despite being referred to shelters by Homeland Security according to one of the documents on Monday. One hundred and sixty-nine of the children are younger than 13.
The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that the number of children in their care is constantly changing. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
March 8, 2021, 8:08 p.m. ET
The shelters managed by the Department of Health and Human Services typically house around 13,600 young migrants. However, as of Friday, space was restricted due to measures to combat the pandemic. As of Sunday, the health department had more than 8,100 unaccompanied minors in its accommodations, so the system was 13 days away from its “maximum capacity goal”, according to the records.
The Biden administration has already opened an emergency inflow center for children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, an animal shelter whose use has seen backlash during the Trump administration.
The criticism comes from all sides, even when the president tries to navigate in a tight space to get a one-off immigration law through Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat representative, said the continued detention of families in a tent facility was “not okay, never was okay, never going to be okay”.
And Republicans are already signaling that they plan to put the consequences of Mr Biden’s immigration agenda at the center of their efforts to retake Congress in 2022.
You referred to Mr Biden’s decision to gradually re-admit asylum seekers who had to wait months in Mexico as part of a Trump-era program. Harnessing the power of immigration during his 2016 campaign, Mr Trump warned in a glowing statement of a “spiraling tsunami on the border” and predicted that “illegal immigrants from all over the world will come down on our border and never be returned. “
Mr Biden, who was briefed on the issue last week, used his senior administrators to tour the border facilities this weekend. The government has provided disaster relief funding to border communities, diverted agents from the northern border to the southern border, and is considering a pilot program to deploy health officials at border facilities to speed up the children’s search for sponsors.
In anticipation of even more children arriving at the border, the government directed shelters on Friday to return to full capacity despite the pandemic.
Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas told him on a phone call last Friday that the government was rushing to find more room for them To find children. “You can’t just say we’re out of space,” said Mr. Thompson. “You have to start looking.”
During the campaign, Mr. Biden supported a move away from imprisonment and release of migrants in the United States and tracking them with an ankle monitor or regular phone calls while their immigration cases are processed. The administration has worked out a plan to release families from long-term detention within 72 hours.
Under the same pandemic rule as the Trump administration, the Biden administration has continued to reject most migrants except unaccompanied children.
And almost as soon as Mr Biden took office, senior administrative officials publicly tried to discourage migrants from traveling north, saying it would take time to unravel Mr Trump’s policies. Previous public messaging campaigns, including putting up billboards in Central America to encourage migrants to stay home, have failed.
“Realistically speaking, you are addressing a population of people who are desperate,” Mayorkas said in an interview. “It’s not going to work 100 percent, but if it is effective at all it is of great importance not only to what we are trying to do, but also to the well-being of the people.”
Some families are released to the United States. Border officials were unable to turn away migrant families in South Texas due to a change in Mexican law prohibiting the detention of young children.
Administrative officials point out a number of measures aimed at fixing what they consider to be a broken immigration system: improving communication between the border police and the health department, including whether the children being transported to the long-term centers are boys or girls are; Streamlining background checks for shelter staff; and vaccination of border workers against the coronavirus.
They also accelerate efforts to create new childcare facilities in the weeks and months required to find relatives or foster parents. They are considering idle school buildings, military bases, and federal facilities that could be quickly turned into places acceptable to children.
And they are restarting a program in Central America that enables children to apply for asylum without having to make the dangerous route to the border. Mr Trump ended the program that government officials von Biden said would ultimately reduce the influx of migrant children into the United States.
But it will all take some time. They are now realizing, officials say, that the pressure on Mr. Biden will only increase.
“Every step of the way, we look at where the bottlenecks are and then try to remove those bottlenecks and yes, they won’t be resolved tomorrow,” said Esther Olavarria, Assistant Immigration Director for the White House Council’s Home Affairs. “But if you don’t start doing each of these things, you’ll never solve the problem.”
Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman contributed to the coverage.