WASHINGTON — The desperate plea landed this week in the email inboxes of employees in government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and NASA: Will you consider taking a four-month paid leave from your job to help care for migrant children in government-run shelters packed with new arrivals at the border?
The request to much of the federal work force came from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is at the heart of a frantic effort by the Biden administration to keep up with a surge in young people crossing the southwestern border hoping to reunite with relatives already in the United States.
The numbers are daunting. In March, border agents encountered nearly 19,000 children at the border — the largest number recorded in a single month — most of them fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. And the flow of migrant children is expected to only increase in coming weeks.
More than 20,000 children and teenagers are in the custody of a government system that is already at “103 percent of capacity,” including nearly 17,000 in shelters run by the health department, according to briefing materials from Operation Artemis, a response to the border crisis led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Government projections obtained by The New York Times show there could be more than 35,000 migrant children to be cared for by June — a prospect that one former senior health and human services official called “terrifying.”
The ability of the Department of Health and Human Services to build shelters, move children quickly into them and then unite them with relatives and other sponsors in the United States is the first major test of whether the Biden administration can respond swiftly and effectively to a growing immigration crisis that has far-reaching political and human ramifications.
The pressure is producing tension inside the White House. President Biden expressed frustration with Xavier Becerra, his new secretary of health and human services, in a White House meeting on March 30, for what the president views as bureaucratic holdups in increasing capacity, according to two administration officials familiar with the exchange.
Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, and Amy Pope, the president’s senior adviser for migration issues, have been aggressively pressing officials from the health department and other immigration agencies for explanations about the failure to quickly move more than 4,000 migrant youths out of jail-like detention facilities run by Border Patrol, according to several people familiar with the meetings.
When they first cross the border, unaccompanied children and teenagers are taken to border jails. By law, they are supposed to be held there for no more than three days before being moved to about 150 shelters and other facilities and group homes overseen by the Health and Human Services Department.
But because of a lack of available space in the shelters, the young people are often being held for far longer in the often-harsh conditions of the border facilities. When they eventually are shipped to the health department’s shelters around the country — where they are required to receive schooling, medical care, psychological services and recreation while officials vet family members, friends or foster parents who can take them in — they typically face further long waits.
“Despite inheriting a broken immigration system decimated by four years of neglect and poor policy decisions, the Biden administration continues to remain focused on expanding capacity and bed space,” said Vedant R. Patel, a White House spokesman.
The images of cramped cells full of teenagers and toddlers in border jails intended for adults are the direct result of an urgent lack of space in shelters that were originally meant as short-term facilities but during other immigration surges have typically ended up housing migrant children for at least a month and often longer.
The latest surge, on pace to be larger than those that prompted crises for President Barack Obama in 2014 and 2016 and for President Donald J. Trump in 2019, has administration officials racing to erect facilities and recruit staff for them.
Officials have opened a dozen emergency shelters in vacant spaces like convention centers in Dallas and San Diego, an expo center in San Antonio, and a military site and a former camp for oil workers in Texas.
They have also moved to cut the time it takes to conduct background checks for parents in an effort to release the young migrants from the shelters more quickly and open up spots for those being held in border jails. But even with the early signs of progress, over 4,100 minors were stuck in border facilities earlier this week, far more than the 2,600 detained in border jails at the peak of the surge in 2019.
Republicans have seized on the issue to claim that Mr. Biden did not act swiftly enough to expand the shelter system even as he focused on unwinding his predecessor’s restrictive border policies.
A flurry of executive orders issued weeks after Mr. Biden took office targeted other parts of his immigration agenda, including reviewing the Trump administration’s policies that limited asylum and halting border wall construction. And the president waited until March to call on FEMA to assist in the effort to find shelter space for the children, after the number of minors stuck in border jails surpassed 3,000.
Former health officials under Mr. Trump — whose policies were intended to make conditions for migrants at the border bad enough to deter more people from coming — said they had pushed during the last two years of his administration to expand the number of available beds for migrant children and to reduce the amount of time that children spend in the department’s care.
Two senior former officials said that by the time Mr. Trump left office, the department was on track to expand the system’s ability to deal with further surges by adding thousands of beds over time that could be quickly activated in an emergency.
“The United States has the capacity to be compassionate,” said Lynn Johnson, the former assistant secretary of the health department’s Administration for Children and Families under Mr. Trump. “But we’re not compassionate when we don’t have a process in place and we let what’s happening, happen. We have got to fix this.”
Aides to Mr. Trump said career officials warned the incoming Biden team of the likely surge of arrivals in the spring, but said the new administration did not move quickly to begin reactivating emergency facilities for added space.
Biden administration officials reject that criticism, saying they were not given enough information during the transition and they notified Congress of the need to begin adding emergency capacity in early February.
They said they were also hampered by a decision by Trump administration officials during the pandemic to freeze hiring at the health department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the shelters. And they accused their predecessors of merely relying on the existence of Mr. Trump’s harsh policies that blocked migrants from entering the country.
“They were turning away unaccompanied migrant kids so they were not taking efforts to expand the shelter system,” said Cecilia Muñoz, one of Mr. Biden’s top immigration officials during the transition.
With the permanent shelters out of space, the administration is increasingly turning to temporary spaces that are more like hurricane shelters, with cots rather than beds and few of the more school-like services that the health department offers at its licensed facilities.
Mr. Biden’s aides are scouting additional locations, including a convention center in Long Beach, Calif., and a Navy boot camp in Illinois. Officials are also planning on expanding the number of tent camps attached to the border jails. Government documents show the administration also still needs to ramp up hiring of medical officials and case managers.
A briefing memo sent to administration officials this week directed the health department to “identify and deploy all available federal volunteers to support” the effort to address the increase of minors, a drive reflected by the email seeking government workers to help. As of Friday, 2,722 employees across the government have volunteered, in most cases with their salaries being picked up by the health department. Some are caring for children at shelters. Others are helping with case management, I.T. services, food delivery, transportation and other logistics.
Officials said hiring for the shelters was often a challenge because the care of migrant children has become a highly charged, political issue, with critics often making no distinction between Border Patrol jails and the health department’s shelters.
Government contractors who run many of the shelters on behalf of the government have struggled to find staff willing to endure criticism. And the intense immigration debate has made it harder to recruit foster parents.
Chris and Kristen Umphlett, who have welcomed migrant children to their home in Lansing, Mich., since last year, said the requests for help from organizations working on behalf of the government were becoming more urgent as the crisis worsened.
“They’ve made explicit asks. ‘Do you know anyone? Tell people about this. Refer people to us,’” said Mr. Umphlett, a data analyst at a software company. “Part of the problem is they need to get people into the funnel of qualifying for foster care.”
The United States has long struggled to quickly move children out of the government’s care to make room for new arrivals.
Most are eventually matched with a parent who is already in the country. But others are handed over to more distant relatives, friends or foster parents. The more distant the connection, the longer the children are typically held in the shelters while health officials do background checks to ensure their safety.
Of the roughly 2,000 minors released to sponsors in the past week, about half were reunited with parents or legal guardians after an average of 23 days. Those with more distant relatives had to wait on average nearly two months.
Health department officials acknowledged that the vetting process was arduous. Officials require the families, many with limited English, to provide specific documents proving their relationship and to send in fingerprints of certain relatives for background checks.
The administration has made efforts to streamline that process, rescinding a Trump-era program backed by Stephen Miller, the architect of Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda, which had sought to determine legal status of relatives before children could be placed with them. Under Mr. Miller’s policy, the health department was required to share background check information on all adults in a child’s prospective household with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which would then determine their legal status.
Critics said the policy discouraged some relatives from coming forward to retrieve migrant children from the health department. Under Mr. Biden, the department no longer routinely shares the information with ICE and does not require such extensive background checks to other members of the household.
But speed must be balanced with security concerns for the children, officials said, particularly after a 2016 Senate report revealed that more than a dozen immigrant children were forced into labor at an egg farm or placed into trafficking rings after the health department failed to conduct background checks of caregivers.
“From the outside it may not appear to be an ideal system but at its core it is one that emphasizes safety, which is critical when it comes to vulnerable children,” said Krish Vignarajah, the president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which helps unite minors with sponsors.
The Biden administration has made progress in recent days, bringing the number of minors in border detention facilities down by more than 1,000 from the height of 5,000 last month. But the internal documents show that to handle a surge that the administration has said will continue to grow into the summer, the health department will need to release more than 800 minors a day by June, compared with the roughly 300 children currently being released daily.
Officials are also looking to reduce the flow of migrants from Central America, including children, with diplomatic outreach, new immigration programs and financial investment in the region. But Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico who has been spearheading diplomacy with the region, announced on Friday that she would leave the administration at the end of April as planned.