The United States is seeing a rise in apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children, most from Central America, along its southern border. The U.S. has been preparing for a potential spike in migrant children crossing the southern border without their parents and has identified up to 19,000 beds at shelters and housing sites to prevent these minors from languishing in Border Patrol detention facilities, according to a public statement made by top Biden administration officials.
In multiple interviews, Health and Human Services Secretary, Xavier Becerra, and Cindy Huang, the recently departed director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said officials are working to avoid repeating what occurred in 2021, when a shortage of shelter beds stranded thousands of migrant children in ill-suited Border Patrol and makeshift housing facilities. Currently, Border Patrol has less than 8,700 children in their care. That’s down from a high of over 22,000 about a year ago. About 76% of unaccompanied children in federal care are fifteen years of age or older, though authorities have detained infants and toddlers. Border Patrol ended up finding shelter for those children over the course of a year. Border Patrol believes that it has been able to provide in a safe and humane way and understand that there is a constant fluctuation of the number of children they may see transferred to them.
The refugee office, an HHS agency that cares for unaccompanied minors, has nearly doubled shelter bed space since the start of the Biden administration, expanding it to 11,500 beds. The office is also operating two makeshift housing sites at the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base and a work camp in Pecos, Texas, that can accommodate 4,000 migrant teens and thousands of additional back-up beds. The refugee office is also reviewing additional sites to set up large-scale housing facilities in case there’s a sharp increase in unaccompanied children entering U.S. border custody. The agency already notified Congress it is setting up a housing facility at a campus in Greensboro, North Carolina. By the end of fiscal year 2022, which ends in October, the U.S. refugee office is prepared to have 19,000 beds available using $8.76 billion in funds allocated by Congress, saying the agency could ask lawmakers for more funding if a spike in border arrivals of migrant children overwhelms that capacity.
While the Department of Homeland Security initially processes all migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, it only has long-term legal custody over adults and families with children. DHS is required by law to transfer unaccompanied minors to HHS within three days of processing them. HHS is in charge of caring for migrant children until they turn 18 or they can be placed with a sponsor in the U.S., typically a close relative. Migrant children in HHS custody remain in deportation proceedings unless they are granted asylum or other forms of legal protection, such as visas for abused minors. Migrant arrests along the Mexican border have soared in the past year, reaching 221,000 in March, a 22-year high. Officials were expecting border arrivals to increase further once a pandemic restriction known as Title 42 was lifted, but on May 20th, a judge blocked the appeal and denied lifting Title 42. Title 42 expulsions are removals by the U.S. government of people who have recently been in a country where a communicable disease was present.
What does this mean for you?
As of March 2022, before the practice of expelling unaccompanied children was blocked in court and then later formally ended by the Biden administration, CBP used Title 42 to turn away and expel over 1.6 million single adults, nearly 200,000 individuals in a family unit, and nearly 16,000 unaccompanied children. These expulsions took place despite provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act which requires the government to protect children who arrive at the border without a parent or legal guardian. The number of family expulsions under Title 42 also grew between 2020 and 2021, while expulsions of unaccompanied minors decreased, reflecting their exemption from the policy beginning in February of 2021. The number of encounters reflects repeat encounters with individuals, as each attempt by the same individual to cross the border is counted as a new encounter. In the last 6 months of 2021, a quarter of the encounters under Title 42 were of the same individuals on multiple occasions, with repeat rates under the authority being at their highest levels in over a decade. While Title 42 is intended COVID-19 exposure risk at the border, it has led to an increasing number of separation encounters at the border. This is in large part because, unlike Title 8, migrants apprehended under Title 42 are immediately expelled and, consequently, those with repeat encounters do not face any penalties and may make repeated attempts to cross.