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With 13,000 migrant children in detention, Biden grapples with the first major border test of his presidency

With few empty shelter beds, thousands of unaccompanied migrant children have been stranded in overcrowded U.S. border patrol premises for days. Some children reported showering only once every seven days and taking turns sleeping on the floor.

A camp for oil workers in Texas has been converted into an emergency shelter for the growing number of migrant minors crossing the southern border without their parents. A Dallas convention center is expected to begin housing teens on Wednesday. Federal facilities overseen by the military and NASA could also be turned into facilities to accommodate young migrants.

On Tuesday, the US government had over 13,000 unaccompanied migrant children under his care. More than 4,200 people were stranded in border patrol facilities that were unable to accommodate them, including 3,000 who had been detained beyond the legal 72-hour limit. In addition, 9,200 minors were housed in shelters that are working to reactivate beds taken offline during the pandemic.

Less than two months into his tenure, President Biden faces an intimidating test on the US-Mexico border, with acute humanitarian implications that could overshadow his administration’s successes in other areas. Unlike his Republican and Democratic predecessors, Mr Biden’s challenges on the southern border came during a public health crisis once in a generation, compounding the difficulty of quickly remedying the situation.

“This is an extremely urgent situation where the lives of children are at stake,” Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, the largest provider of legal services for unaccompanied children in the United States, told CBS News. United States.

Vowing to repudiate the harsh border policies of his predecessor, Biden ended former President Donald Trump’s practice of deporting unaccompanied migrant children without allowing them to seek humanitarian refuge in the United States. transfer most of these minors to reception centers while they seek asylum or other forms of relief to stay in the country.

Mr Biden’s administration now faces the logistical challenges of sustaining this political decision as thousands of Central American children and adolescents head north. Some are fleeing threats and persecution from gangs. Others are leaving poor communities, including those still recovering from hurricanes that made landfall last year. Many hope to be reunited with their families.

Migrant asylum seekers in Penitas, Texas
A U.S. Border Patrol officer gives instructions to migrants seeking asylum as they line up along the border wall after crossing the Rio Grande River to the United States from Mexico on a raft, in Penitas, Texas, March 17, 2021.


Overall, border apprehensions remain below historic highs and most single adult migrants and some families are being deported from the United States under a Trump-era public health order. However, more than 9,400 unaccompanied minors entered custody at the US border last month, the highest total of any February in history. US Refugee Agency shelters took in 7,300 of these children – another record for February.

The number of children crossing the southern border alone continued to increase this month. According to government records reviewed by CBS News, more than 570 unaccompanied minors have entered U.S. border guard every day in the past week.

In a long and detailed statement released Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was candid about the gravity of the situation, noting that border officials were meeting unaccompanied minors as young as 6. did not always meet the legal 72-hour deadline for transferring unaccompanied minors to the refugee office.

Unlike his predecessors, who focused on deterring unaccompanied children from setting foot on American soil, Mayorkas reported that the Biden administration faced the current situation as an operational challenge that can be managed while maintaining a more humane policy.

Mayorkas said he had deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help the refugee office house young migrants. He also announced that his department was in the process of setting up several new facilities to temporarily detain the children and allow them to be transferred to shelters at the refugee offices immediately after their entry into custody by the border patrol.

“I came to this country as a child, brought in by parents who understood America’s hope and promise. Today young children arrive at our border with the same hope,” Mayorkas said. , an immigrant from Cuba. “We can do it.”

While reiterating that the United States will not turn back unaccompanied children, Mayorkas has made it clear that border officials will continue to deport adult migrants and families with minors under the public health authority first invoked. times by the Trump administration. He said officials would seek to deport more families by helping Mexico expand its capacity to accommodate them.

However, this policy, known as Title 42, is in legal jeopardy. Under the Trump administration, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) convinced three federal judges that the policy likely violates public health law and obtained an injunction prohibiting the government from using it to deport unaccompanied children.

The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit to end family evictions, but agreed to stay the case while the Biden administration reassessed U.S. border policy. The stay of the case is expected to expire next Tuesday.

“We have agreed to suspend our case to have discussions with the Biden administration, but we have made it clear that we will return to court if the discussions prove to be unproductive,” said Lee Gelernt, senior counsel for the ACLU in the case, to CBS News. . “If the administration says it is not only planning to eliminate family evictions, but to increase the number of evicted families, we will probably have no choice but to go back to court.”

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have described the number of children arriving at the southern border as a crisis of security, public health and humanitarian concerns – not an operational challenge. They blamed Mr Biden’s rhetoric and proposals on immigration for the marked increase in the number of minors entering border facilities and threatened to derail the administration’s legislative priorities as a result.

“It is indeed a crisis which continues to worsen every day,” Republican MP John Katko said on Wednesday when Mayorkas appeared before the House internal security committee. “One thing that deeply disturbed me was the number of children I encountered along the border, exposed to the elements and having experienced a dangerous and traumatic journey from their country of origin.”

Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz, a doctor from California, called criticism from fellow Republicans hypocrites, saying most did not vocally oppose the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents in 2017 and 2018.

Ruiz, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the Biden administration faced a “capacity problem” along the southern border – not a security crisis.

“Now the effort and focus is on keeping families together and speeding up the safe passage of unaccompanied people to their caring parents,” Ruiz told CBS News. “This is the number one goal, whereas before, the Trump administration created the scenario of unaccompanied minors by removing them from their parents.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, has sharply increased releases of unaccompanied children to sponsors, who tend to be family members in the United States. the current massive backlog of miners trapped in border patrol custody.

The refugee agency plans to set up new emergency housing in addition to those opened in Dallas, Carrizo Springs and Midland, Texas. Unlike shelters, these facilities do not have permits from state authorities to house children – a concern for some defenders.

“Are these large facilities ideal? Absolutely not. But that’s what we have now,” said Young, president of KIND. “Frankly, I would much prefer the children to be in these emergency facilities, rather than sitting in border patrol posts or worse yet, being sent back to Mexico or going back to their countries of origin.”

Young said that the current increase in arrivals of migrant children, while being a formidable logistical challenge, presents an opportunity for the US government to increase its capacity to process them and their requests for humanitarian assistance.

“Bend over, adopt a ‘I can do’ attitude,” Young said. “There is nothing this country cannot do.”


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