Since the beginning of the year, thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed the southern border of the United States, creating what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called a “humanitarian crisis.” To help address the escalating situation, the Biden administration has ordered FEMA to the border to help care for the detained children, including around 8,500 migrant children in Department of Health and Human Services custody who are awaiting placement with family sponsors in the U.S.
Over the weekend, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would aide the effort to receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied migrant children for the next 90 days. The agency will be working with HHS to “look at every available option to quickly expand physical capacity for appropriate lodging.”
The system to house migrant children involves Homeland Security processing young migrants, then transferring them to Health and Humans Services within three days so they can be placed with a familial sponsor in the U.S. But the sharp increase in unaccompanied arrivals has resulted in more children being held beyond that period at Border Patrol facilities because HHS does not have the capacity to house them. As a result, many children are being held in tent shelters and crowded cells built to house adults.
This is not the first time that FEMA has aided in the effort to house and process migrant children: In 2014, the agency deployed at the border to help build temporary shelters and processing stations amid record numbers of unaccompanied arrivals. The surge this year has largely come after Biden ended the Trump administration’s practice of sending back child migrants who cross the border alone. The current administration, however, continues to expel immigrant families and single adults: In February, border agents arrested more than 100,000 migrants along the border, and in March, they are on pace for 130,000 arrests.
While sweeping immigration reform is part of Biden’s policy platform, so far in his time in office — as in the two administrations before him — he has enacted changes through executive order, ending some of the more punitive actions of the Trump years, while maintaining other recent directives like the policy known as Title 42, which allows the government to deport asylum seekers without due process amid the pandemic. House Democrats hope this could change with votes this week on two acute policies: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the Dream and Promise Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers and undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.