The Biden administration holds tens of thousands of child asylum seekers in an opaque network of some 200 facilities that spans two dozen states and includes five shelters with more than 1,000 children crammed inside, according to the Associated Press news agency.
The confidential data obtained by the AP indicates the number of migrant children in government custody has more than doubled in the past two months, and this week the federal government housed approximately 21,000 children, from toddlers to teens.
A facility at Fort Bliss, a US Army post in El Paso, Texas, had more than 4,500 children as of Monday.
Lawyers, advocates and mental health experts say while some shelters are safe and provide adequate care, others put children’s health and safety at risk.
“It’s almost like ‘Groundhog Day,’ said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Luz Lopez, referring to the 1993 film in which events seem to keep repeating themselves.
“Here we are back to a point almost where we started, where the government is using taxpayer money to build large detention facilities … for children instead of using that money to find ways to raise money. more quickly children with their sponsors. ”
A spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said the department’s staff and contractors are working hard to keep the children in their care safe and healthy.
Some of the current practices are the same as President Joe Biden and others criticized under former President Donald Trump’s administration, including failing to screen some caregivers with full fingerprint checks digital files from the FBI.
At the same time, court records show the Biden administration is working to settle several multi-million dollar lawsuits alleging child migrants being abused in shelters under Trump.
Part of the government’s plan to deal with thousands of children crossing the US-Mexico border involves a dozen unlicensed emergency facilities inside military facilities, stadiums and convention centers that bypass regulations state and do not require traditional legal oversight.
Inside the facilities, called emergency reception sites, children do not have access to education, recreation or a lawyer.
Some of the facilities currently housing children are run by contractors who already face legal action, claiming children were physically and sexually abused in their shelters during the Trump administration, while others are new companies with little or no experience working with migrant children.
In a recent press release, the administration touted its “restoration of a child-centered focus to unaccompanied children,” and shared daily totals for the number of children in government detention as well as some photos of the installations. This reflects a higher level of transparency than that of the Trump administration.
In addition, the time children spend, on average, inside 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. social.
Nevertheless, the agency received reports abuse that resulted in the sacking of a handful of contract labor officers at emergency sites this year, according to an official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke under cover of ‘anonymity.
“ Nobody would tell me any information ”
Lawyers say that sometimes even parents cannot know where their children are.
Jose, a father who fled El Salvador after his village was the target of a massacre, sought asylum in the United States four years ago.
He had hoped to welcome his wife and eight-year-old daughter to Southern California this year, but the couple were returned to the border in March and deported to Mexico.
The little girl crossed again on her own and was placed at the government shelter in Brownsville, Texas on April 6.
Jose has repeatedly called a government hotline set up for parents looking for their migrant children, but said no one will tell him where she is.
“I was so upset because I kept calling and calling, and no one wanted to tell me where she was,” said Jose, who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of endanger his immigration case.
“Eventually they told me I had to pay $ 1,300 to cover his 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 held inside Brownsville Institution before she was finally released to her in late April after an advocacy organization intervened to have the government foot the bill for her ticket. plane, as required by the agency.
HHS declined to say whether there are legally binding standards for caring for children staying at emergency sites or how they are monitored.
The Biden administration has allowed very limited media access once children are brought into facilities, citing the coronavirus pandemic and privacy restrictions.
“HHS has been working as quickly as possible to increase bed capacity and to ensure that potential sponsors can provide a safe home while the child goes through the immigration process,” said the HHS spokesperson. Weber in a statement.
“As soon as comprehensive services – on-site primary care, including childhood immunizations and physical care, case management, phone calls to family members, education, recreation, etc.” – become available through the additional infrastructure and personnel they are provided as part of the operation. “
Weber confirmed a number of specific shelter populations from data obtained by the PA.
“ Very dysfunctional ”
Mass shelters, with hundreds of beds each, are of particular concern to defenders. These facilities can leave children isolated, less supervised and without basic services.
The AP found that about half of all migrant children detained in the United States sleep in shelters with more than 1,000 other children. More than 17,650 are in institutions with 100 or more children. Some shelters and reception programs are small, little more than a house with a handful of children.
A large facility in Houston abruptly closed last month after it was revealed that children were given plastic bags instead of having access to restrooms.
“The system has been very dysfunctional and it is getting worse,” said Amy Cohen, child psychiatrist and executive director of the nonprofit Every Last One, which works to help immigrant families escape violence in Central America. Although large numbers of children have been arriving in the United States for years, Cohen said she has never seen the situation as bad as it is today.
Cohen described parents receiving calls from people refusing to identify themselves.
They are told to be at an airport or bus station within the next two hours picking up their children, who have been held for over a month without notice or else they would not be released.
Some parents are told to pay thousands of dollars to a travel agency to have their child sent to them, she said.
“Children come out of it sick, with COVID, infested with lice, and it won’t surprise me to see children die as a result, as we saw during the Trump years,” Cohen said. “The Biden administration is feverishly setting up these pop-up detention centers, many of which have no experience working with children.”
One of the reasons so many children are now arriving without their parents can be traced back to a 2020 Trump administration emergency order that essentially closed the US-Mexico border to all migrants, citing public health concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19.
This emergency order still applies adults, but the Biden administration has started allowing children traveling without their parents to stay and seek asylum if they enter the country. As a result, some parents send their children across the border on their own.
Most already in the United States have a parent or other adult relative or family friend, known as a sponsor, waiting to receive them. But first, they’re typically held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, and then returned to a government shelter.
“As much as children spending entire days at CBP is unacceptable, so are children spending weeks in a row in unlicensed emergency reception sites,” said Neha Desai, National lawyer. Center for Youth Law. “With each passing day, it is more and more essential that these children are handed over to sponsors or transferred to approved establishments.”