Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeatedly argued on Sunday that the United States’ border with Mexico is “closed,” amid a marked increase in immigrant arrivals, particularly of unaccompanied minors.
Reports emerged Sunday that the administration has at least 15,500 unaccompanied minors in custody — 10,500 in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and 5,000 detained by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
The minors being held by HHS are being housed in emergency shelters and facilities licensed for child care, according to CBS News, while the roughly 5,000 children and teenagers in CBP care are being kept in crowded, “jail-like facilities,” according to a CNN report that cites case managers, lawyers, and law enforcement.
That report describes a setting in which “children are alternating schedules to make space for one another in confined facilities, some kids haven’t seen sunlight in days, and others are taking turns showering, often going days without one.”
Children are spending an average of five days in those facilities, and more than 600 ofthe children have been in custody for longer than 10 days, the report states. By law, unaccompanied children are supposed to be processed and sent to HHS shelters within 72 hours.
Officials have blamed the delay on the crowding at the border, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and Sunday, Mayorkas also said the Trump administration is responsible for the increase in arrivals at the border.
“The entire system was dismantled by the prior administration,” Mayorkas said on CNN’s State of the Union. “There was a system in place in both Republican and Democratic administrations that was torn down during the Trump administration.”
Former President Donald Trump made radical changes to immigration policy, including fighting for funding for a US-Mexico border wall; instituting the Migrant Protection Protocols, which required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as they awaited hearings; and signing agreements to send some Central American migrants back to their countries of origin.
President Joe Biden has ended these policies, arguing they run counter to his administration’s pledge to offer a more “humane” approach to immigration than under the previous Trump and Obama administrations.
In February, the Biden administration began accepting unaccompanied children. Many such children have been stranded in Mexico for a year under Trump’s “remain-in-Mexico” policy, and are now seeking protection under federal law and to reunite with US-based family.
And earlier this month, the administration said that it would restart the Central American Minors program — halted under the Trump administration — which allows children in danger to apply to enter the US from their home countries instead of having to first arrive at the US-Mexico border.
Critics of the administration argue that the uptick in immigration stems from this decision. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) told ABC’s This Week on Sunday, “The messaging is that if you want to come, you can stay.” But allies, like former Obama administration DHS official John Sandweg, have argued that Trump administration policy like the Migrant Protection Protocols created a backlog of cases, and that those policies are “artificially increasing the numbers,” as he told CNN.
Sister Norma Pimentel, who leads the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told Politico the problem doesn’t lie with any one administration, but all of them: “It’s caused by the fact that nobody has ever done something to address it before and that’s why we still have the situation.”
The Biden administration has made key changes to immigration — but is asking immigrants not to come
Regardless of where the fault lies, there has been an increase in unaccompanied children and teenagers crossing the southern border, with about 9,400 entering border custody in February. This month, an average of 500 minors per day have entered the country, according to government data.
Officials have opened three emergency facilities for the children, and will soon open a fourth, according to CBS News; the Trump administration operated three such facilities.
In many ways, the Biden administration appears to have been caught flat-footed by the increase in migration — even though administration officials were reportedly briefed by DHS officials in advance that such an increase was likely.
On Friday, Mayorkas visited El Paso alongside Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI), Rob Portman (R-OH), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). In a tweet, Murphy described crying and frightened children, while Portman called for policy changes to “discourage migration & provide safer alternatives to making the dangerous journey north.”
While unaccompanied minors — and some families with young children, due to a recent change to immigration rules in Mexico — are being allowed to stay, Mayorkas stressed on Sunday that adults and families are being expelled, “because we are in the midst of a pandemic, and that is a public health imperative.”
“We are encouraging children not to come,” he said. “The journey is dangerous.”
The Biden administration is working to find solutions for the situation at the border
Sunday, Mayorkas made several references to having a plan for addressing the needs of unaccompanied minors — and the uptick in immigrants in general.
Thus far, that plan has seemed to include sending FEMA to help HHS and CBP with caring for unaccompanied minors, and striking a deal with Mexico, trading coronavirus vaccines for more assistance limiting immigration.
Since taking office, Biden has said he wants to take a humane approach to immigration, including with unaccompanied minors. When he was vice president, Obama was referred to by immigration advocates as the “deporter-in-chief,” and the Trump administration border policies gave rise to protests against “kids in cages.”
If Biden wants to achieve a different outcome for immigrants — and legacy for himself — he will need to establish different policies, and quickly. Sweeping and lasting reforms would need to come through Congress, but as Vox’s Nicole Narea has reported, the crowding can be addressed by a president through streamlining the relationship between DHS and border patrol.
“One potential solution is co-locating US Department of Health and Human Services staff in CBP facilities to speed up screening of migrant children and swiftly release them to sponsors. Some of this coordination and information sharing can be done from Mexico, before the child enters the United States,” she writes.
And Mayorkas has outlined other ideas for unaccompanied minors, Narea reports:
He said that the administration is working on a new regulation that would speed up asylum adjudications such that the process would take months, rather than years, while “ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.” It’s not clear what mechanisms the administration will use to do so, but it’s the kind of reform that immigrant advocates have been calling for — so long as it does not infringe on asylum seekers’ due process rights.
The administration is also planning to help Mexico expand its capacity to accept more migrant families. Last month, Mexico stopped accepting some families with children under the age of 12 due to a change in its laws concerning the detention of children, so they have been released into the US instead on a case-by-case basis. But, problematically, that could lead more families to simply send their children to the border unaccompanied, knowing that the US will accept them, but leaving them more vulnerable to drug cartels and human traffickers.
In addition to collaborating with Mexico, the administration is seeking to work with Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — to create processing centers in those countries that would screen migrants to see if they are eligible for humanitarian protections, including asylum.
Legislation is pending on immigration reform for certain groups, including undocumented “DREAMers” who came to the US as children, as well as farmworkers and those facing humanitarian crises back home.
These bills have yet to pass the Senate, however, and even if they do, they will not affect the swelling border facilities, including those full of children attempting to enter the US, after making a dangerous journey north and weathering a year of policy changes amid a deadly pandemic.