Mar 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Leaked HHS docs spotlight Biden's child migrant dilemma

 A group of undocumented immigrants walk toward a Customs and Border Patrol station after being apprehended at the U.S. border

A group of undocumented immigrants walk toward a Customs and Border Patrol station after being apprehended. Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Fresh internal documents from the Department of Health and Human Services show how quickly the number of child migrants crossing the border is overwhelming the administration's stretched resources.

Driving the news: In the week ending March 1, the Border Patrol referred to HHS custody an average of 321 children per day, according to documents obtained by Axios. That's up from a weekly average of 203 in late January and early February — and just 47 per day during the first week of January.

  • The same documents, dated Tuesday, say the shelter system is at 94% occupancy and expected to reach its maximum this month.

Meanwhile, some of President Biden's top officials responsible for immigration policy are planning a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border this weekend, sources tell Axios.

  • The influx of unaccompanied minors is a mushrooming problem for the new president and his policy and social welfare agencies.
  • “A trip is not finalized and the White House continues to work on locking in details and logistics for a potential visit," White House spokesperson Vedant Patel told Axios.
  • Spokespersons for DHS and HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Behind the scenes: HHS has already moved to open overflow shelters and to increase the speed with which it releases children to caretakers already in the U.S.

  • In the week ending March 1, an average of 174 children were released from HHS custody each day. That was up from a weekly average of 90 in late January and early February, according to the documents.
  • Nonetheless, the number of migrants held in Border Patrol custody longer than three days has been rising nearly each day, according to additional documents reviewed by Axios.
  • Kids and teens caught crossing the border without legal guardians are being held in Border Patrol facilities for more than three days, for an average of 77 hours, as CNN first reported.

The big picture: This week, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted the current situation is not yet a crisis. Regardless, it's clear the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border could fast overwhelm government systems, in ways similar to the crises in 2014 and 2019.

  • The uptick comes while the administration continues to use an emergency public health order to quickly deport migrant adults and some families — including asylum seekers.
  • At the same time, Biden has reversed a Trump administration policy of using the public health order to quickly turn away unaccompanied children.
  • The source who provided the internal Biden administration documents expects to see family migration rise over the next months, as well.

What to watch: Internally, government officials have been sounding alarm bells. As Axios previously reported, DHS is expecting a record number of child migrants this year.

  • HHS has told the White House it will need a 20,000-bed capacity to humanely accommodate them.
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