The number of migrant children in US custody has ballooned to nearly 15,500 as border officials struggle to find space to house them.
As of Saturday the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was housing nearly 10,500 children and teens in state-licensed emergency facilities and shelters, spokesman Mark Weber told CBS News.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was also housing more than 5,000 unaccompanied minors at a tent holding facility in southern Texas and other stations along the Mexico border, records showed.
The records indicated that the children are spending an average of 136 hours – over five days – in CBP custody, well beyond the 72-hour limit allowed under US law, CBS reported.
Housing facilities for unaccompanied migrant minors have been pushed to the brink as border officials encountered an average of 500 children and teens per day over the past three weeks.
It comes after February saw a record high number of minors enter US custody with more than 9,400.
State-licensed facilities filled up so quickly that the refugee agency within the HHS has been forced to open a number of makeshift housing facilities where children can be kept until they’re turned over to family members or other sponsors in the US.
‘The staggering number of children in CBP custody is both heartbreaking and profoundly concerning,’ Neha Desai, a lawyer for the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), told CBS.
The number of migrant children in US custody has ballooned to nearly 15,500 as border officials struggle to find space to house them. Pictured: Two young boys who were separated from a large group of migrants wait to be taken to a special facility after illegally crossing into the US in Penitas, Texas, on March 12
A US Border Patrol agent processes asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors as family units sit on the sideline after about 70 migrants crossed the Rio Grande river into US from Mexico on a raft in Penitas, Texas, on March 17
Desai described harrowing conditions that she and her NCYL colleague Leecia Welch witnessed when they visited a tent holding facility for unaccompanied minors in Donna, Texas, last week.
She said the tent was so overcrowded that migrant children had to take turns sleeping on the floor and could only shower one time a week. The children also reported being unable to call family members, Desai said.
Desai said she believes ‘the Biden administration is committed to humanely addressing the humanitarian situation we now face’.
But she added: ‘Time will tell whether the government’s good intentions and hard work will translate into the changes that are urgently needed.’
The HHS on Saturday announced plans to open a fourth influx facility for unaccompanied minors in Pecos, Texas, that will house about 500 to start and could be expanded to up to 2,000.
CBP apprehended more than 100,000 migrants at the border in February, compared to just 16,182 in April 2020 when migration slowed drastically amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Migrant children and teenagers relax in the sun outside of their housing units at a temporary holding facility south of Midland, Texas, on Saturday
Migrant children and teenagers are processed after entering the site of a temporary holding facility south of Midland, Texas, on March 14
Biden officials are blaming the former Trump administration for the burgeoning border crisis.
But critics say that Biden invited the influx of migrants by rolling back a number of stringent Trump-era immigration policies. During his campaign promised that all those seeking asylum in the US would be granted, which led to a surge of caravans heading from Central American to the US-Mexico border.
Biden’s Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas addressed the crisis on Sunday and sent a clear message to migrants: The US border is closed.
‘Our message has been straightforward and simple, and it’s true – the border is closed. We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults,’ Mayorkas told NBC’s Meet the Press.
‘I think we are executing on our plans and, quite frankly, when we are finished doing so, the American public will look back on this and say we secured our border and we upheld our values and our principles as a nation,’ he added.
Mayorkas said that the administration, however, is committed to not turning away unaccompanied minors who arrive at the US border.
‘We’ve made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children,’ he said.
Newly-confirmed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Sunday: ‘The border is closed’
A donated campaign flag for President Joe Biden flies over tents at a makeshift camp of migrants at the border port of entry leading to the US last week
Host Chuck Todd asked Mayorkas: ‘Are you concerned that the word will go out, and you’ll get unaccompanied minors from all over the world trying to come to our southern border?’
The official replied: ‘We are safely processing the children who do come to our border. We strongly urge, and the message is clear, not to do so now. I cannot overstate the perils of the journey that they take.’
‘Regrettably, I am all too aware of the tragedies that have occurred and continued to occur along that journey,’ he said of children who arrive – or attempt to arrive – at the border alone.
Mayorkas did the rounds Sunday morning, appearing on five different shows to do damage control on the growing southern border crisis – even as the administration refuses to call the situation a ‘crisis.’
He continued to deflect blame for the situation on Trump.
‘Please remember something – that President Trump dismantled the orderly, humane and efficient way of allowing children to make their claims under United States law in their home countries,’ he said.
CBP is now considering a plan to release migrants who crossed the border illegally without first giving them a court date to reappear.
President Biden is said to be disappointed in his officials for not being able to adequately shelter and process the massive increase of migrants at the southern border
A senior CBP source told Fox News that Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley Sector are considering releasing migrants into the United States without an official Notice to Appear, a process that normally takes hours for each individual or family.
The move means migrants who crossed the border illegally would be released from custody into the United States – and it would place the responsibility of returning for an asylum hearing on the migrants themselves, through Immigration and Customs Enforcement or legal assistance, Fox News reported.
As this information came to light and the press continued to be blocked from gaining access to detention facilities, reports emerged that Border Patrol agents were issued a gag order on what they can share with the media.
Mayorkas claims these reports are not rooted in reality.
‘Right now, we have no access to or photos of the conditions in the facilities. There have been no ride-alongs with agents. All inquiries are routed through Washington. There have been strict controls on sharing data. Local Border Patrol folks feel like they can’t even talk to our folks down there. Is there a gag order?’ Todd pressed on Sunday.
He insisted: ‘There is not.’
‘That is unequivocally false,’ Mayorkas added. ‘And let’s be clear here – We are in the midst of a pandemic. We are, because of the extraordinary leadership of the president, climbing out of it more rapidly than ever before. But we are still in the midst of the pandemic. There is CDC controls in place. And Border Patrol agents are focused on operations, on securing the border, on addressing the needs of vulnerable children. We are not focused on ride-alongs right now.’
Previously, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said there would be organized trips for press to gain access to detention facilities. Later, she walked back on those comments, but promised photos to show conditions.
Then on Thursday, Psaki said the White House would not be releasing to the media photos that advisors shared with President Joe Biden to brief him on conditions on facilities housing childhood migrants on the border.
Psaki had kept open the idea of sharing them at a press briefing a day earlier after she revealed that advisors to Biden who had been to the border spoke to him ‘with photos’ about the facilities where unaccompanied children were being housed.
Migrants are seen in custody at a US Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge on Friday in Texas
A woman and two children receive an examination at the El Paso Service Processing Center in Texas on March 8
The Biden administration is also considering flying migrants to states near the Canadian border for processing, The Washington Post reported on Friday.
President Biden is said to be disappointed in his officials for not being able to adequately shelter and process the massive increase of migrants at the southern border, CNN reported.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Biden thinks his officials are not moving fast enough in setting up better conditions for migrants stuck in jail-like facilities for longer than the 72 hours allowed by law.
‘He was disappointed that we hadn’t gotten answers from other agencies faster or that [the facilities] wouldn’t be ready for children faster,’ the official said.
‘He made it pretty clear that there were times when he didn’t think we were moving fast enough.’
Biden officials claim Trump officials did not fully cooperate with his transition team, hindering their ability get a realistic view of potential migration, and that Trump deconstructed the immigration and asylum system – which they then inherited.
Blanca Lopez Carranza (center) a migrant from El Salvador, talks with Jeydy Oseguera (right) and her eight-year-old son, Justin Melendez Oseguera, after their expulsion from the US
Migrants are seen in custody at a CBP processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge on Friday
One official told CNN that Trump prevented Biden’s team from getting ‘under the hood in the time frame that other administrations would have been able to.’
‘Were we prepared? Yes,’ the official said.
‘Everyone wants to be like ‘crisis, crisis, crisis, crisis’ – but it’s like, you know what, actually, things are going really well. Yes, we brought in FEMA, but you know what? That was the responsible thing to do.’
Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the director of the White House’s office of intergovernmental affairs, told CNN that the Biden administration knew it was inheriting ‘an absolute mess.’
‘As we were coming into the administration, we knew we were inheriting an absolute mess from the previous administration,’ she said.
‘There were aspects of our legal immigration system that had been gutted and a department that lacked the personnel to administer our laws.’
Another administration official said: ‘When we came into office, like, it was a disaster. I mean, really. The staffing wasn’t in place, the structures weren’t in place.’