The number of unaccompanied immigrant minors arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico is on a steep rise, posing an early challenge to ambitious plans by President Joe Biden to loosen immigration rules.
The number of unaccompanied minors referred to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency tasked with caring for them once they cross the border, climbed from 1,530 in October to 3,364 in December – a 120% jump, according to agency statistics released this week. January’s numbers were not yet available.
The agency usually has 13,764 beds for the minors but only 7,971 are currently available because of COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. Of those, around 5,200 are occupied, leaving 2,700 open beds, according to the resettlement agency.
“It’s really critical that the Biden administration live up to their commitment of fair and humane treatment of immigrants at the border,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a legal advocacy group that represents immigrant youth.
“We’re more than capable of surging resources to the border to humanely and fairly process these children without sending them to influx facilities or allow them to languish in (border patrol) facilities,” she said.
In a slew of executive orders and memoranda, Biden has begun to reverse many of the hardline immigration policies of former President Donald Trump, including forming a task force to try to reunify families separated at the border under the previous administration and vowing to halt the quick deportations of minors.
But as more immigrants are allowed to stay, where to temporarily house them – especially children who show up at the border alone – is becoming a looming question.
Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced the reopening of a controversial overflow facility — known as a temporary Influx Care Facility — to house unaccompanied migrant teenagers. The facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, will house up to 700 migrant children within the next two weeks, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The facility will be used for children ages 13 and older who have been medically cleared of COVID-19.
Its opening raised concerns among some immigration lawyers and advocates, who point out that the facility doesn’t have the same state licensing requirements or oversight as other ORR facilities for minors and are often located in rural, desolate locations far from legal advocates who can assist them.
“To legal providers like us, those places are like black holes,” Koop said.
Koop said she hopes the Biden administration comes up with creative ways to keep children in licensed facilities instead of turning to influx centers. One thing the resettlement agency could do is use more long-term foster beds to house the youth, something they’ve done in the past, she said.
Under a 2008 anti-trafficking law, border agents are supposed to turn minors over to the resettlement agency within 72 hours, where they’re held temporarily and released to relatives or guardians in the United States. There is no time limit on how long the children can stay in the resettlement agency’s shelters.
A steep decline in immigration due to COVID-19, worsening conditions in Central American countries and a previous administration that all but closed off the border to immigrants created a “perfect storm” that’s now drawing more migrants to the border, said Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense, an advocacy groupfor refugee and immigrant children.
“We’ve been down this road before,” she said. “It does appear we’re on a path to where we’re seeing numbers going up significantly.”
Young said she sympathizes with the Biden administration as it reverses many Trump policies and tries to humanely process more migrants. Though not ideal, she said she would prefer to see unaccompanied minors in temporary influx facilities rather than the alternatives of the past four years, which included quick deportations and having minors wait in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” program, which denied asylum-seekers entry to the United States while their cases were being considered. The Biden administration said it’s reviewing the policy.
“If it’s a choice between a child being held at an influx facility and a child being held in a Border Patrol facility or sent across the border, I’ll take the influx facility,” Young said.
As the pandemic gripped the hemisphere, the number of unaccompanied minors intercepted at the U.S. border dipped last summer to around 700 a month. But those numbers have been steadily climbing.
The numbers are still well below the steep influx witnessed in 2019, when Border Patrol agents apprehended 11,475 minors in just one month.
But a Border Patrol official recently voiced concern over the growing number of immigrant youths trying to sneak into the country, rather than hand themselves over to border agents, as they did during surges in 2014 and 2019.
Agents have discovered children squeezed in among dozens of immigrants crammed into horse trailers or buried in hidden floors of trailer trucks. In November, four unaccompanied juveniles were among the 38 immigrants found in a Rio Grande City, Texas, stash house.
“I really am worried that something terrible may happen to one of these groups,” U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz told USA TODAY in December.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.