McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The thousands of unaccompanied undocumented migrant youth who have crossed the Southwest border in the past six weeks since the Biden administration took over is prompting federal officials to shift how they process children and to send for more federal resources to help.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this weekend announced that employees with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are now being sent to South Texas to help process these youths. The FEMA employees will be embedded with officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and work with Border Patrol agents in places like the newly built tent processing facility in the border town of Donna, Texas.
Over the next 90 days, FEMA will take part in what Mayorkas describes as a “government-wide effort” to “safely receive, shelter and transfer unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. southwest border,” his office said in a statement.
“I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care. Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” Mayorkas said.
A Border Patrol facility is no place for a child.”Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas
It also is a violation of federal law to hold a child for more than 72 hours in these processing centers. However, given the influx of children, Mayorkas and other federal officials have said they cannot move these youth safely under these terms given the current staff and accommodations, as well as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
So FEMA officials will be on the ground to help the Department of Health and Human Services assess the status of each child and to more quickly move them to sponsors in the interior or to a certified HHS shelter, depending on their individual cases.
“Our goal is to ensure that unaccompanied children are transferred to HHS as quickly as possible, consistent with legal requirements and in the best interest of the children,” Mayorkas said.
There were a total of 9,457 unaccompanied minors apprehended by Border Patrol agents in February, Acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller last Wednesday said on a call with news media. He explained the processing of the youth, saying they are put to the “front of the line” in the CBP facilities to expedite their removal from Border Patrol custody to HHS. And then HHS works to connect them with sponsors as quickly as possible.
“When we apprehend a child we go through a process to ensure they are medically safe and then we put the children at the front of the line for processing — in front of single adults and family units — and then coordinating with HHS ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) we turn them over as soon as we can,” Miller said.
But there has been concern that the migrant youth are staying in HHS care for far too long.
Miller said he could not provide the number of unaccompanied youth in federal custody. NPR last week reported that 3,400 migrant youth were either in DHS custody or referred to HHS, citing data and unnamed sources.
On Monday, in response to a question from Border Report, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said that some children are held “from 21 days to 237 days” before being released from HHS to sponsors in the interior of the United States.
On Friday, Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, along with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, toured an HHS facility for unaccompanied migrant teens in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Afterward, during a news conference in Laredo, he said the children are assessed and prioritized for release by HHS depending upon whether they fall into these four categories:
- Have a primary sponsor legally residing in the United States, such as a parent.
- Have close relatives legally residing in the United States, such as siblings.
- Have distant relatives residing in the United States, such as cousins or uncles or aunts they can go to.
- Have no sponsors or connections at all with those legally living in the United States.
“Border Patrol is supposed to keep them 72 hours, but if not there’s not enough space then detention facilities, or shelters for the kids under HHS ORR, then they’re going to hold them a little bit more because there’s large numbers coming in. We want to move them from Border Patrol as soon as possible and try to get the kids over to these shelters as soon as possible,” Cuellar said on Monday.
There are 952 beds in the Carrizo Springs facility and the federal government pays $800 per day and is required to pay for all beds, whether full or not, Cuellar said. That brings the daily price tag to $761,600 or $22.8 million per month.
Groups of migrants — mostly families and unaccompanied youth — numbering over a hundred are being apprehended by Border Patrol agents in South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. The numbers are so large that hundreds now are being sent daily to other cities, including Austin, San Antonio, Laredo and El Paso.
On Monday, a contingency of Republican lawmakers, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, visited the U.S-Mexico border and toured a migrant processing facility in El Paso due to concerns of the overflow of hundreds of undocumented migrants who are being sent to that city from the Rio Grande Valley, most not tested for the coronavirus.
CBP officials have told Border Report they do not have the resources to test all migrants they apprehended for coronavirus and refer for medical attention to those who show symptoms.
Border Patrol agents on Monday said on Saturday they apprehended two large groups of undocumented migrants in Starr County, including a group of 134 migrants near Las Lomas, Texas, outside of Rio Grande City, and 113 near La Grulla, on the eastern edge of the county. Most were from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, but there also were 17 migrants from Romania, Border Patrol said in a statement issued Monday.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.