US refugee agency for children at risk of maxing out capacity

The number of unaccompanied kids at the border is starting to outpace capacity.

February 25, 2021, 7:00 PM

The federal agency tasked with connecting unaccompanied children to relatives or sponsors in the U.S., is on the verge of maxing out its capacity to hold children before they are resettled, new government data shows.

The Office for Refugee Resettlement, a division of Health and Human Services, has more beds than ever before in its history, but the coronavirus pandemic has cut the amount of usable space nearly in half. Out of that available space, the ORR shelters are at 92% capacity, according to an HHS official.

That leaves the agency to rely on large, temporary shelter camps. The use of temporary holding facilities was heavily criticized by Democrats and immigrant advocates just two years ago when a surge of migrant families caused similar capacity issues.

Officials are currently working to ramp up capacity at a facility on the outskirts of Carrizo Springs, Texas, from its current bed count of 225 up to 700, the HHS official said.

On a single recent day in February, the ORR received 413 referrals of unaccompanied children from the Department of Homeland Security while just 132 were united with a sponsor on the same day, according to the agency.

This difference has prompted the agency to take new measures to connect kids with sponsors more quickly, including authorizing shelter facilities to pay for plane tickets and other means of transportation, an ORR official confirmed in a statement to ABC News.

The Washington Post was first to report on the new transportation policy.

Another facility that could potentially be used again for unaccompanied minors, according to the HHS official, is the Homestead shelter in south Florida. Under the Trump administration, Amnesty International called the holding of minors at the facility "cruel and unlawful." And several Democratic lawmakers spoke out against it, including then-Sen. Kamala Harris.

Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand stand on a ladder to look over a fence to see the detained migrant children in front of a detention center in Homestead, Fla., June 28, 2019.
Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden came to office vowing to unwind the prior administration's hardline immigration policies, signing a slew of executive actions and pushing for legislative reform.

"I will accomplish what I said I would do: a much more humane policy based on family unification," Biden said as president-elect. "But it requires getting a lot in place."

Is the Biden administration doing the same thing as the Trump administration?

Yes and no.

The Trump administration was heavily criticized for its use of facilities like Carrizo Springs for housing undocumented migrants and the Biden administration is now putting back it back into use. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is also using a recently-constructed tent facility in Donna, Texas, to process migrants, while the main processing center in nearby McAllen undergoes renovations.

However, the Biden administration is not separating migrant families as the Trump administration was so heavily criticized for doing.

"It's absolutely not the same thing," Psaki said on ABC's "The View" Wednesday. "We are not ripping children from the arms of their parents. That is horrible and immoral and something we saw in the last administration."

When the influx of migrant families hit its peak in 2019, CBP stations and their staff were not equipped to handle it. Border Patrol agents normally out patrolling the desert were tasked with child care.

The Biden administration is now grappling with the added challenge of having to house more migrant children amid the pandemic and as they break from the former president's hardline posture of turning everyone back. While CBP doesn't provide the ages of all minors who they apprehend crossing illegally, officials have described the majority of them as children in their early to mid-teens.

The Biden administration said it is attempting to get out ahead of this problem, in part, by re-opening Carrizo Springs before migration patterns hit the same level.

"We need to figure out how to treat them humanely and keep them safe, and in the time of COVID, that means we needed to open an additional facility," Psaki added on "The View." "This is incredibly difficult. It's heart-wrenching and it's a really difficult decision, but this is the best decision we felt we could make to keep these kids safe and get them into the right places and right homes."

Young people walk the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., July 15, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

The administration's defense in reopening the Carrizo Springs facility, which is made to handle overflow and was last used in 2019, is twofold: to guard against situations where undocumented minors are held in CBP facilities longer than they should be and to provide proper spacing amid the pandemic.

Psaki has described the crisis of unaccompanied migrant children as "heartbreaking" but in short, said at a briefing that the administration has no perfect solution: "This is a difficult situation. It's a difficult choice. That's the choice we've made."

"There was not enough space in the existing facilities, and, if we were to abide by COVID protocols. That's the process and the step. This facility in Texas, which has been reopened, has been revamped, has been -- there are teachers, there is medical facilities, and our objective is to move them -- move these kids quickly from there to vetted sponsored families into places where they can safely be," Psaki said Wednesday.

An Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter for unaccompanied migrant children is under construction in El Paso, Texas, June 10, 2020.
El Paso Times via USA Today Network

The Carrizo Springs facility last housed migrant children in 2019. In July of that year, when the number of unaccompanied children coming across the border started to decline after a peak earlier in the year, the facility was put into "warm status," meaning it was out of use but maintained.

Crossing attempts continued to decline as the Trump administration pressed forward with hardline asylum restrictions and its "Remain in Mexico" protocols.

When the global health crisis hit in 2020 the Trump administration implemented further restrictions at the border, technically under the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These restrictions, known as "Title 42 expulsions," resulted in the immediate removal of the vast majority of people who attempted to cross into the U.S.

The Biden administration has continued the expulsions for everyone except children.

In recent months, the number of unauthorized border crossing attempts has begun to rise, according to the latest data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Last month, CBP averaged 3,000 arrests per day. Responding to a request from ABC News, CBP declined to share the average daily intake and referral numbers for unaccompanied children citing concerns about the impact to law enforcement operations.

An Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter for unaccompanied migrant children is under construction in El Paso, Texas, June 10, 2020.
El Paso Times via USA Today Network, FILE

What are the alternatives?

Now that the Biden administration is no longer sending children back to Mexico, their options are limited. There's broad consensus from CBP officials and their critics that Border Patrol stations are not fit to hold children long-term.

That leaves facilities like Carrizo Springs as one of the few viable options for minors to be held while authorities locate and verify potential sponsors to house them in the U.S.

"A bigger solution and system must be contemplated so we don't have to resort to these kinds of measures in the future," Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center said in a recent tweet. "But while we're building that, we have to ask what is the best we can do right now?"

While the ultimate aim is to place children with sponsors, vetting them takes time. When the Trump administration tried to expedite this process, they faced the liability of potentially sending a child to an unfit or dangerous home.

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