U.S. Expands Holding Facilities for Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As unaccompanied migrant children continue to arrive at the southern border in startling numbers, the Biden administration announced this weekend another expansion of temporary overflow holding facilities for minors. The new facility in Pecos, Texas, will initially be able to hold 500 children, with the potential to build out capacity to house 2,000.

The Department of Health and Human Services announcement was anxious not to describe the new facility as a tent, stating that the housing will initially be “hard-sided,” but that additional “semi-permanent and soft-sided” structures will be added if needed. As hundreds of children are detained at the border on a daily basis, the extra beds will almost certainly be required. Since President Biden took office, migrant arrivals have seen a tremendous uptick, due to the new administration’s cancellation of many, but not all, punitive immigration policies put in place by Donald Trump. As of Saturday, 5,049 unaccompanied minors and a total of 9,830 migrants of all ages were in Border Patrol custody; those numbers increased from 4,615 unaccompanied children and 7,970 immigrants of all ages since Thursday.

The Biden administration has taken several steps to increase holding capacity for unaccompanied minors being processed through the immigration system amid the pandemic. (Adult asylum seekers who arrive at the border are currently being turned away due to the Trump-era coronavirus directive known as Title 42.) Since the White House deployed FEMA at the border earlier this month, the Office of Refugee Resettlement — the agency responsible for migrant children care — states that it has built out its capacity to 13,500 beds. But with the U.S. on track for as many as 2 million immigrants to arrive this year, housing capacity and time spent in detention for migrant children will continue to be a challenge. As of Thursday, over 500 migrant children were already in Border Patrol custody for over ten days. That number is a week past the three-day legal limit, at which point authorities must transfer the children to Health and Humans Services so they can be placed with a family sponsor in the U.S. There are an additional 11,800 minors currently in HHS custody, as that agency also struggles with capacity.

As unaccompanied minors continue to arrive at the border, the conditions are creating pressure in Washington, D.C., for lawmakers to act. While senators call for more press access in migrant-holding centers — where legal advocates claim children are being forced to sleep on the floor due to overcrowding — local officials are calling for federal action. “There’s no question Donald Trump’s strategy was inhumane, brutal, and un-American,” Democratic representative Vicente Gonzalez of Texas told Politico. “But what we’re doing now is also a failure.” Though three immigration-reform bills passed in the House on Thursday, none are expected to survive in the Senate, where Republicans who have weaponized the issue will likely choose not to act on it.

The political blame for the crisis became its own concern on Sunday, after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted on several news shows that the “border is closed” for adult migrants. “We are expelling families,” he said on Meet the Press. We are expelling single adults. And we’ve made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children.” Former president Donald Trump, motivated as always by what is on the television, responded later in the day, saying that “the pathetic clueless performance of Secretary Mayorkas on the Sunday Shows today was a national disgrace, adding that there must be a “huge cover-up” to conceal the conditions at the border. Trump also called for a completion of his wall, which he claimed could be wrapped up in “a matter of weeks,” although it took four years for his administration to cover about a fourth of the border with steel fencing.

U.S. Expands Holding Facilities for Unaccompanied Minors