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Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Biden is preparing for his own crisis at the U.S. border, with 5,000 migrant children and counting: The number of unaccompanied minors trying to cross is rising while coronavirus distancing requirements have cut by half the number of useable beds in government shelters.

Driving the news: Two administration officials tell Axios plans are underway to open an overflow shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which could house another 700 children in its main building under COVID-19 precautions.

  • This comes as Biden is set to unveil his own immigration and border policies this week, beginning Tuesday, and undo much of his predecessor's hardline approach.

Why it matters: The Trump administration was lambasted for its extended use of the temporary shelters and so-called "tent cities" when holding facilities were overwhelmed during the migrant crisis in 2019. Biden's rhetoric and intentions differ, but that doesn't change his challenge: when apprehensions rise and space runs out, the options are limited.

  • Temporary shelters are controversial because they aren't subject to the same state licensing and monitoring of the long-term facilities, experts say.
  • The Texas site can accommodate tent-like facilities in case of a surge. The senior official said children at the influx shelter will receive education, medical and mental health care and all of the other services that they would in other shelters.

Details: By law, border officials have only 72 hours to transfer migrant children to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shelters, which can be difficult when numbers surge. One official said in anticipation of that scenario, HHS will notify Congress it intends to use Carrizo Springs.

  • There are currently about 5,000 children in HHS' care.
  • The number is still safely below normal capacity — and far below the 2019 crisis levels when the monthly, average shelter population reached 14,000. But it's about twice the number compared to late November.
  • Meanwhile, coronavirus precautions have cut the available beds by about half.
  • Sunday, there were 260 referrals of children to shelters, according to one internal report reviewed by Axios. That’s not far off the 294 average at the peak of the child migrant crisis in June 2019, according to public agency data.

Biden's team may face added scrutiny because of the Trump administration's handling of child immigration issues. One administration source told Axios, "The new leadership is so afraid of making any decision because of optics."

Flashback: In November, a court order blocked border officials under the Trump administration from using an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to quickly expel migrant kids who cross the border.

  • The uptick in child migrants is at least partly due to the impact that order had.

What's next: Despite a Friday court ruling that would allow the Biden administration to revert to fast-track expulsions of migrant children begun under Trump, a senior administration official said there are no plans to do so.

Go deeper

Home confinees face imminent return to prison

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Thousands of prisoners who've been in home confinement for as long as a year because of the pandemic face returning to prison when it's over — unless President Biden rescinds a last-minute Trump Justice Department memo.

Why it matters: Most prisoners were told they would not have to come back as they were released early with ankle bracelets. Now, their lives are on hold while they wait to see whether or when they may be forced back behind bars. Advocates say about 4,500 people are affected.

The "essential" committee that still doesn't exist

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Nearly five months after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the creation of the bipartisan Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, it's not been formed much less met.

Why it matters: Select committees are designed to address urgent matters, but the 117th Congress is now nearly one-quarter complete without this panel assembling. When she announced this committee, Pelosi described it as an "essential force" to "combat the crisis of income and wealth disparity in America."

Biden's ethics end-around for labor

President Biden surveys a water treatment plant during a visit to New Orleans today. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is excusing top officials from ethics rules that would otherwise restrict their work with large labor unions that previously employed them, federal records show.

Why it matters: Labor's sizable personnel presence in the administration is driving policy, and the president's appointment of top union officials to senior posts gives those unions powerful voices in the federal bureaucracy — even at the cost of strictly adhering to his own stringent ethics standards.