WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is deploying the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Mexican border to help care for thousands of unaccompanied migrant teens and children who are arriving in overwhelming numbers and being packed into detention cells and tent shelters, the Department of Homeland Security said Saturday evening.
The deployment marks another escalation in the administration’s response to the growing crisis at the border. It is part of what DHS said would be a 90-day government-wide effort at the border, where an unprecedented number of minors are arriving without their parents each day and must be sheltered and cared for until they can be placed with a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or relative already living in the United States.
About 8,500 teens and children are living in shelters run by Health and Human Services, and unaccompanied minors are arriving more quickly than HHS officials can place children with sponsors. They have been unable to quickly add capacity to accommodate the new arrivals, which means nearly 4,000 minors are jam-packed in Border Patrol station holding facilities and jail cells designed for adults. These sites have become dangerously overcrowded in recent days, according to lawyers who represent migrant children.
Soon after taking office, President Joe Biden said his administration would no longer turn back minors who cross the border without their parents, a policy that the Trump administration implemented using an emergency health order. Immigrant activists and child advocates denounced that practice for denying minors the opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States while exposing them to potential risks in Mexico.
Biden officials have not said why they did not anticipate or better prepare for the unprecedented surge that has followed the policy change. As many as 700 teens and children have crossed the border without their parents in recent days, and the strain has been most acute in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where emergency shelters are filled beyond capacity.
The crisis has become quickly politicized, with Republicans blaming Biden’s policy change for the surge.
“When people think they can get in, they begin sending their unaccompanied child on a train ride across Mexico where she may be kidnapped and trafficked on the hope that they’re going to be waved through at the border,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, defended Biden, saying that while the conditions at the border were “unacceptable,” there also needed to be acknowledgment that “the flow of humanity at our front door never stopped.”
“We began seeing the increase of unaccompanied minors going back to last April 2020,” Escobar said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “This is not something that happened as a result of Joe Biden becoming president.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Biden had inherited the border crisis from the Trump administration.
“They are working to correct that in the children’s interest,” Pelosi said of the new administration on ABC’s “This Week.” Murphy said on “Fox News Sunday” that it was not U.S. policies that drove migration, but “the desperation of the circumstances that these people are living under.”
“So let’s follow Joe Biden’s advice and start putting some money into helping quell the reasons for migration,” Murphy said. “Let’s restart the program that allows for kids to apply for asylum in their home country in places like Honduras and Guatemala instead of waiting until they get here.”
During the first major influx of migrant teens and children in 2014, the Obama administration also deployed FEMA, which helped set up temporary housing and processing stations on military bases. Biden officials have not said whether the Defense Department has agreed to help with the current surge, and the DHS statement did not indicate where FEMA might find shelter beds for the teens and children.
Officials have used hotels along the border since the start of the pandemic to hold minors, but attorneys sued the Trump administration to halt the practice. The government will “look at every available option to quickly expand physical capacity for appropriate lodging,” the DHS statement said.
While FEMA can help provide logistical support, it would not be able to leverage disaster funding without the assent of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, who has blasted the Biden administration’s immigration policies. Abbott has also balked at a DHS proposal for FEMA to handle coronavirus testing for migrants as well as isolation procedures for those who test positive.
Under U.S. law, minors are supposed to be transferred from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to HHS within 72 hours. HHS holds the minors in child-appropriate shelters while refugee officials identify a sponsor who is eligible to take custody. In nearly 90% of cases, the sponsor is one of the child’s parents or immediate relatives already living in the United States.
That process takes more than a month on average, and with teens and children arriving faster than HHS has been able to release them, the Border Patrol facilities have been backed up.
“A Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in the agency’s statement. “We are working in partnership with HHS to address the needs of unaccompanied children, which is made only more difficult given the protocols and restrictions required to protect the public health and the health of the children themselves.”
DHS continues to use the public health order to “expel” single adults and some of the families that have also begun arriving in soaring numbers. In February, border agents made more than 100,000 arrests and detentions along the border, and this month they are on pace to reach more than 130,000.
The latest HHS and DHS statistics show about 75% of the minors are ages 15 to 17. But some of those in custody are age 6 or even younger, and the specialized care they require has placed significant strain on federal agencies.
Homeland Security officials have requested that employees volunteer to go to the border immediately to help care for the minors and assist with administrative duties and security functions.
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The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.