Feb 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Border officials project 13,000 child migrants in May

Children are carried on shoulders as scores of asylum seekers wait for a meal and a drink at the "El Chaparral" border crossing

The "El Chaparral" border crossing at Tijuana. Photo: Stringer/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

A Customs and Border Protection staffer told top administration officials Thursday the agency is projecting a peak of 13,000 unaccompanied children crossing the border in May, sources directly familiar with the discussion told Axios.

Why it matters: That projection would exceed the height of the 2019 crisis, which led to the infamous "kids-in-cages" disaster. It also underscores a rapidly escalating crisis for the Biden administration.

  • "We’re seeing the highest February numbers than we’ve ever seen in the history of the [Unaccompanied Alien Child] program," a Department of Health and Human Services official told Axios.

What to watch: The administration is already preparing to quickly expand its network of migrant-child shelters, which have had their capacity sharply reduced because of coronavirus protocols.

  • The scandal-ridden shelter in Homestead, Florida, is expected to be opened in April, according to a source familiar with the call. CBP chief of staff Lise Clavel provided the border-crossing projection.
  • HHS, which oversees the child shelter network, is talking with the Pentagon about finding additional overflow sites, which often resemble big tents. Military bases were used during the 2014 and 2019 crises as additional temporary facilities.
  • Officials discussed the importance of addressing so-called "push factors" in Central American countries — things causing migrants to flee. President Biden has long supported plans to invest in those nations as a way to stem the flow of migrants.
  • There was no discussion of U.S.-based policies or practices that would work to deter migrants, such as reinstating the use of an emergency public health order to quickly deport migrant kids. Deterrent strategies were preferred by the Trump administration.

Background: The National Security Council hosts frequent calls about a range of topics. Thursday's 1 p.m. call focused on the growing number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. It included several senior-level officials at HHS, Homeland Security, State and other departments.

  • Overall, the tone was not frantic. Despite the Trump administration's frequent mishandling of migrant families and children, it managed to establish processes for expanding shelter space when border numbers increased — providing a blueprint for the current administration.
  • However, Jonathan White, a top HHS career official, expressed more concern about the sheer volume of expected migrants combined with space-limiting coronavirus protocols. Those factors could force kids to wait in unfit CBP holding cells.
  • White had warned the Trump administration early on about the harm the family separation policy would cause for child migrants.

It's not the only sign of the new administration buckling up.

  • The Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief of staff told officials this month, "We need to prepare for border surges now," according to an internal email obtained by Axios but first reported by the Washington Times.
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