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Migrant teens and children have challenged three administrations, but Biden faces rush with no precedent

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The last three presidents have each had to grapple with a sudden arrival of thousands of unaccompanied migrant teenagers and children along the Mexico border, but the challenge facing President Biden in recent weeks is an unprecedented one. Never before have so many minors arrived so fast.

Over the last three weeks, the average number of teenagers and children crossing into the United States without their parents has topped 550 per day, according to the latest government data reviewed by The Washington Post. Border officials are on pace to take in more than 17,000 minors this month, which would be an all-time high.

The influx has overwhelmed the government’s ability to safely shelter and care for the minors before delivering them to family members and vetted sponsors living in the United States, a challenge complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Photos released Monday by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) showed teens packed into a South Texas tent facility operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that was at 1,500 percent of its pandemic-rated capacity as of Sunday, per CBP data. Cuellar’s office said the photos were taken over the weekend.

In 2014 and 2019, the Obama and Trump administrations faced a similar challenge, the result of desperate conditions in Central America and U.S. laws that limit the government’s ability to swiftly return most minors who do not qualify for asylum to countries other than Mexico and Canada. But Biden has had a markedly different approach than his predecessors to an influx Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said was on pace to be the largest “in the last 20 years.”

The Biden team has primarily focused its efforts so far on adding capacity to shelters and other facilities to absorb the influx, declining to implement policies that would send minors back because the administration considers the policies morally unacceptable.

Unaccompanied minors taken in at the U.S.-Mexico border, by month

Source: U.S. Border Patrol data reviewed by The

Washington Post

Unaccompanied minors taken in at the U.S.-Mexico border, by month

Source: U.S. Border Patrol data reviewed by The Washington Post

Unaccompanied minors taken in at the U.S.-Mexico border, by month

Source: U.S. Border Patrol data reviewed by The Washington Post

Nine days into the new presidency, a federal appeals court gave the government a green light to resume President Donald Trump’s use of an emergency public health order to “expel” unaccompanied minors, typically by flying them to their home countries. Biden officials declined to do so and instead allowed these minors to remain in the United States and pursue humanitarian claims under U.S. law.

The Biden administration has continued to use the public health order, Title 42, to expel most adults and some families arriving at the border, a decision that is being challenged in court. Biden officials have, at times, misstated how the Title 42 expulsions generally worked under the Trump administration.

On Sunday, Mayorkas told NBC News that the Biden administration “will not expel into the Mexican desert, for example, three orphan children whom I saw over the last two weeks. We just won’t do that. That’s not who we are.”

Migrants await processing after being apprehended at the U.S. border near Mission, Tex., on Feb. 10. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

A member of the Hidalgo County constable’s office searches a wooded area near Mission, Tex., on March 2. (Sergio Flores/Bloomberg News)

Lights from a police car illuminate a migrant family who were apprehended at the U.S. border near Mission on Feb. 10. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

TOP: Migrants await processing after being apprehended at the U.S. border near Mission, Tex., on Feb. 10. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: A member of the Hidalgo County constable’s office searches a wooded area near Mission, Tex., on March 2. (Sergio Flores/Bloomberg News) BOTTOM RIGHT: Lights from a police car illuminate a migrant family who were apprehended at the U.S. border near Mission on Feb. 10. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

During the Trump administration, most Central American minors were flown to their home countries, as Mexico would not allow the return of non-Mexican minors. Three out of 4 minors in HHS’s care in January were aged 15 or over, and only 13 percent were children 12 and under, data shows. About 70 percent were boys. The vast majority of minors are released to one of their parents already living in the United States, or another immediate relative.

The administration does not appear to have prepared or planned for the logistical challenges of accepting thousands of unaccompanied minors.

Legally, children and teenagers must be quickly transferred to the care of Health and Human Services and only stay 72 hours in CBP custody. Shelters run by the HHS are nearly 100 percent full and are holding more than 11,000 teens and children, including thousands at makeshift shelters such as converted oil workers’ camps and a Dallas convention center, the latest figures show. In December 2018, when Trump was president, those shelters hit a peak of holding 14,200 per day.

Another 5,000 minors are waiting for HHS beds in Border Patrol facilities not intended for children or tent facilities like the one shown in photos released Monday, more than twice the previous high of 2,600 in June 2019, data shows. The teens and children have been waiting for transfer to HHS care for 136 hours on average, nearly twice the legal limit.

Referrals to and discharges from HHS custody by week

Discharges

from HHS custody

Note: Numbers are weekly averages.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services data

reviewed by the Washington Post

Referrals to and discharges from HHS custody by week

Discharges

from HHS custody

Note: Numbers are weekly averages.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services data reviewed by the

Washington Post

Referrals to and discharges from HHS custody by week

Discharges from HHS custody

Note: Numbers are weekly averages.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services data reviewed by the Washington Post

The difficulty of caring for so many teens and children is a particular challenge for CBP, whose agents are federal law enforcement officers primarily trained to seize narcotics and intercept adults attempting to sneak into the United States. The agency is ill-suited to cope with the complex emotional, physical and health needs of a youth population comprised primarily of teenagers but also some small toddlers and babies.

Minors in CBP custody must be separated by gender and age. Teenagers can be unruly. Younger children, known as “tender age,” are often distraught and frightened. Toddlers needs intense levels of care. And teenage mothers arrive with infants of their own, requiring separate quarters as they wait for an adult sponsor to take custody of them.

When the Obama administration faced the first major influx in the spring of 2014, Border Patrol stations with detention cells designed for adults were soon overwhelmed. Scenes of families and children spending hours on the ground in sweltering garages forced the government to rapidly add capacity.

President Barack Obama and then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson used military bases as influx shelter sites while opening controversial “family residential centers” where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would detain families while their asylum hearings were initiated. Minors who did not have valid claims would be sent home, Obama said, while his administration prodded Mexico into a crackdown on the large numbers of teens and families riding north on top of freight trains.

The Trump administration faced an even larger surge in 2019, even after it implemented a “zero tolerance” policy that intentionally separated thousands of migrant children from their parents. In June 2019, after video of nearly 1,000 family members and children crossing into El Paso in a single group sent Trump into a rage, he threatened to cripple the Mexican economy with tariffs, coercing its government into another enforcement blitz.

Undocumented migrants wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol on May 15, 2019, in McAllen, Tex. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Undocumented migrants on May 15, 2019, in McAllen, Tex. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Undocumented migrants in McAllen, Tex., in 2019. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

TOP: Undocumented migrants wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol on May 15, 2019, in McAllen, Tex. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Undocumented migrants on May 15, 2019, in McAllen, Tex. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Undocumented migrants in McAllen, Tex., in 2019. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Mexico used National Guard troops to arrest Central American migrants and allowed the United States to send tens of thousands of asylum seekers back across the border to wait outside U.S. territory. Told their cases would be quickly processed, many were left to wait for months in grim tent camps without a response from U.S. courts.

When the pandemic hit, Trump used the Title 42 public health order to effectively suspend immigration laws, and crossings plunged for all demographic groups. The number of minors taken into CBP custody fell to a low of 741 in April 2020, then began drifting upward, increasing more after a federal judge halted their expulsions, and 4,993 teens and children arrived in December, Trump’s last full month in office.

Biden officials have blamed the Trump administration for “dismantling” the U.S. immigration system and hampering its ability to respond to a sudden influx. But the refugee office of HHS expanded its shelter capacity to more than 13,000 beds in recent years, near the highest levels ever, primarily in response to crowding issues and backups that occurred during the 2019 crisis.

After the Trump administration implemented the Title 42 order, the HHS reduced its capacity to roughly 8,000 beds to allow for safer distancing during the pandemic.

When Biden officials announced in late January they would not expel minors, they essentially suspended pandemic protocols before the shelter system had returned to pre-pandemic levels. This month, the administration returned shelter capacities to their original levels, even as the coronavirus continues to be a threat.

“I do not understand why, having pretty good knowledge that you would get increased numbers, facilities and locations weren’t already pre-identified and either made warm or stood up,” said Gil Kerlikowske, who was CBP commissioner during the 2014 surge.

The Biden administration said it has made child welfare a priority, promising to reunite families separated by Trump at the border in 2018 and refusing to expel minors arriving into the United States without a parent.

“It is the best interest of the child that really define our actions,” Mayorkas said March 1.

But in federal court records, the administration has been far less categorical, saying the halt to expulsions under Title 42 was “temporary,” while health officials continue to describe border restrictions as a pandemic necessity.

Migrants are seen in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area in Mission, Tex., on Friday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Dustin, an asylum-seeking migrant from Honduras, holds his six-year-old son, Jerrardo in La Joya, Tex., on Friday.

Asylum-seeking mothers from Guatemala carry their children in Penitas, Tex., on Wednesday.

TOP: Migrants are seen in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area in Mission, Tex., on Friday. (Julio Cortez/AP) BOTTOM LEFT: Dustin, an asylum-seeking migrant from Honduras, holds his six-year-old son, Jerrardo in La Joya, Tex., on Friday. BOTTOM RIGHT: Asylum-seeking mothers from Guatemala carry their children in Penitas, Tex., on Wednesday.

“The current covid-19 pandemic continues to be a highly dynamic public health emergency,” Rochelle P. Walensky, Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a Feb. 11 notice.

She said the agency was in the process of “reassessing the overall public health risk at the United States’ borders.” CDC spokesman Jason McDonald said the agency’s review of the Title 42 order is still ongoing.

Child-welfare advocates have applauded the Biden administration for attempting to restore and expand a refugee program for underage Central Americans and for stopping the expulsions of unaccompanied minors, even though their numbers would inevitably rise.

“That was the harder thing. They knew it was going to be harder,” Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that provides legal services to unaccompanied minors.

But she and others said the administration must move faster to take children out of CBP facilities and into their parents’ homes.

“The White House needs to say: ‘This is the time. We need to do this in a totally different way,’” Podkul said. “It’s going to be better for the kids. It’s going to be better for everyone.”

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