Feb 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Hundreds of kids held in Border Patrol stations

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to get to El Paso, state of Texas from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to get to El Paso, Texas. Photo: Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images

More than 700 children who crossed from Mexico into the United States without their parents were in Border Patrol custody as of Sunday, according to an internal Customs and Border Protection document obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The current backup is yet another sign of a brewing crisis for President Biden — and a worsening dilemma for these vulnerable children. Biden is finding it's easier to talk about preventing warehousing kids at the southern border than solving the problem.

  • Making matters worse, border crossings usually peak in the spring, and it's only February.

Behind the scenes: Of the more than 700 kids waiting to be transferred to shelters overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 200 had been held in these Border Patrol stations for more than 48 hours.

  • Nine had been detained for longer than the agreed-upon limit of 72 hours, according to the internal document, which timestamped the data current as of 8:15 a.m. on Feb. 21.

During Wednesday's White House media briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged some kids had been held four or five days — or more.

  • She blamed some of the delays on the bad weather that shut down Texas last week, saying some long-term shelters "did not have power and were not in a place where they had the capacity to take in these kids and do it safely."
  • She also pushed back — hard — on an equivalency between the current and past administrations' handling of children, who generally come from countries in Central America, at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • While president, Donald Trump was criticized for separating children from their parents. That policy is no longer in place, although rising numbers of children arriving now are unaccompanied, meaning they are detained alone anyway.

What they're saying: "We have a couple of options: We can send them back home. ... We can quickly transfer them from CPB to these HHS-run facilities. ... We can put them with families and sponsors without any vetting," Psaki said. "We've chosen the middle option."

During the surge in 2019, government watchdogs found severe overcrowding and concerning sanitation, health and safety issues at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol intake facilities, which are special concerns for children.

  • CBP is only meant to have short-term custody of migrants before adults and families are transferred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and unaccompanied children are transferred to HHS.
  • Nonetheless, in January, at least 179 migrant minors spent more than three days in CBP custody, as well as at least 48 kids in December, CBS News' Camilo Montoya-Galvez reported this week.

What to watch: Coronavirus protocols have also significantly lowered the number of children who can be held at the longer-term HHS shelters.

  • The Biden administration has already been forced to open a temporary influx shelter in Texas for child migrants, which also has the capacity to add tent-like structures.

More than 400 migrant kids were referred to HHS shelters just on Tuesday, according to one administration official.

  • That's an eye-catching number, especially compared to the 30-day referral average at the peak of the 2019 crisis — which was 294.

Bottom line: The Biden administration halted the use of an emergency health order that had allowed the Trump administration to quickly expel migrant children who crossed the border.

  • Some experts now say that Biden's policy reversal is part of the reason for the recent increase in unaccompanied children arriving at the border.
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