The Biden administration is hosting tens of thousands of asylum-seeking children in an opaque network of some 200 facilities that spans two dozen states and includes five shelters with more than 1,000 children packed inside, according to the Associated Press news agency.
Confidential data obtained by the AP shows the number of files migrant children in government custody more than doubled in the past two months, and this week the federal government housed about 21,000 children, from toddlers to teens.
A Fort Bliss facility, a U.S. Army site in El Paso, Texas, had more than 4,500 children as of Monday.
Lawyers, advocates and mental health experts say that while some shelters are safe and provide adequate care, others endanger the safety and health of children.
“It’s almost like‘ Groundhog Day, ’” said attorney Luz Lopez, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, referring to the 1993 film in which events appear to be continually repeated.
“Here we go back to a point where we almost started, where the government uses taxpayers’ money to build large exploitation facilities … for children instead of using that money to find ways to raise more quickly. children with their sponsors “.
A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber said the department’s staff and contractors work hard to keep children safe and sound in custody.
Some of the current practices are the same as those criticized by President Joe Biden and others under the administration of former President Donald Trump, including failing to review some caregivers with a complete FBI fingerprint background.
At the same time, court records show that the Biden administration is working to resolve several multimillion-dollar lawsuits alleging that migrant children were abused in shelters under Trump.
Part of the government’s plan to manage thousands of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border involves a dozen unlicensed emergency facilities inside military facilities, stadiums and convention centers bordering state regulations. and do not require traditional legal oversight.
Within the facilities, called Emergency Entry Sites, children are not guaranteed access to education, recreational opportunities or legal advice.
Some of the facilities that currently have children are run by contractors who are already facing lawsuits alleging that the children were physically and sexually abused in their shelters under the Trump administration, while others are new businesses with little or no no experience working with migrant children.
In a recent press release, the administration promoted its “restoration of a child-centered approach to unaccompanied children” and shared the daily total of the number of children in government custody, as well as some photos of the facilities. . This reflects a higher level of transparency than the Trump administration.
In addition, the amount of time children spend within the system has dropped from four months last fall (fall) to less than a month this spring, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
However, the agency has received reports of abuses that led to the dismissal of a handful of contractors from working in emergency places this year, according to an official who was not allowed to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“No one would tell me any information”
Lawyers say that sometimes even parents can’t figure out where their children are.
Jose, a father who fled El Salvador after his people were the target of a massacre, applied for asylum in the U.S. four years ago.
This year he hoped to welcome his wife and eight-year-old daughter to Southern California this year, but the couple turned the border around in March and were deported to Mexico.
The girl crossed herself again and was placed in the government shelter in Brownsville, Texas, on April 6.
Jose called a government hotline set up for parents who are repeatedly looking for their migrant children, but said no one would tell him where he was.
“I was very upset because I kept calling and calling, and no one was telling me any information about where I was,” said Jose, who asked that he only identify with his first name for fear of jeopardizing his immigration case. .
“I was finally told I had to pay $ 1,300 to cover the plane ticket and if I didn’t pay, I would have to wait another month and I was so anxious.”
For nearly three weeks, her daughter was detained at the Brownsville facility before being finally released in late April after a defending organization intervened to get the government to pay her airline bill, such as requires the agency.
HHS declined to say whether there are legally applicable rules for the care of children housed in emergency locations or how they are being supervised.
The Biden administration has allowed very limited access to the media once children enter the facility, citing the coronavirus pandemic and privacy restrictions.
“HHS has worked as quickly as possible to increase bed capacity and to ensure that potential sponsors can provide a safe home while the child goes through their immigration procedures,” HHS spokesman Weber said in a statement .
“As soon as complementary services (on-site primary care, including physical and physical vaccinations, case management, phone calls to family members, education, leisure, etc.) are available as as a result of additional infrastructure and personnel, will be provided as part of the operation “.
Weber confirmed a number of specific refuge populations from data obtained by the PA.
Collective shelters, with hundreds of beds each, are of particular concern to advocates. These facilities can leave children isolated, less supervised and without basic services.
The PA found that approximately half of all migrant children detained in the United States sleep in shelters with more than 1,000 more children. More than 17,650 are in facilities with 100 or more children. Some shelters and foster care programs are small, little more than a house with a handful of children.
A large Houston facility closed abruptly last month after it was revealed the children were receiving plastic bags instead of accessing the restrooms.
“The system has been very dysfunctional and getting worse,” said Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of the nonprofit Every Last One, which works to help immigrant families fleeing violence in Central America. While there have been a large number of children arriving in the United States for years, Cohen said he has never seen the situation as bad as it is today.
Cohen described parents receiving calls from people who refused to identify themselves.
They are told they are at an airport or bus station within the next two hours to pick up their children, who have been detained for more than a month without notice, or would not be released.
Some parents have to pay a travel agency thousands of dollars to have their child sent to them, he said.
“Children come out sick, with COVID, lice infested, and I won’t be surprised to see children die as a result, as we saw during the Trump years,” Cohen said. “The Biden administration is feverishly putting these emerging detention centers, many of which have no experience working with children.”
One of the reasons many children now arrive without their parents dates back to a 2020 Trump administration emergency order that essentially closed the U.S.-Mexico border to all migrants, citing public health issues about the spread of COVID-19.
That emergency order still applies to adults, but the Biden administration has begun allowing children traveling without their parents to stay and apply for asylum if they enter the country. As a result, some parents send their children alone to the border.
Most already have a parent or other adult relative or family friend, known as a sponsor, in the United States waiting to receive them. But first, they are usually detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, and then handed over to a government shelter.
“As much as making children spend endless days at CBP unacceptable, so is making children spend weeks in places in unlicensed emergency admission locations,” said National Center attorney Neha Desai of Juvenile Law. “With each passing day, it is increasingly critical that these children be released to sponsors or transferred to licensed facilities.”