Fort Bliss Shelter for Unaccompanied Minors Sees 40% Drop in Children Housed There

The number of unaccompanied migrant children at the Biden administration's largest emergency shelter has dropped by more than 40 percent since mid-June. The administration reported about 2,000 children at the Fort Bliss army base in El Paso, Texas, in June, down from a high of 4,800 in May.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters 790 boys and zero girls were at the facility as of Monday. All of the girls have been reunited with family or a sponsor in the U.S., or were sent to a licensed facility with a higher standard of care, the agency said.

In his second visit to Fort Bliss since it opened in March, Becerra said there are more services and staff to get the children released more quickly. Therefore, the agency is considering whether to close some of the emergency shelters. "Because we've been successful in managing the flow, we are prepared to begin the demobilization of several of our emergency intake sites," he said.

Fort Bliss Migrant Facility
The entrance to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. The Biden administration says the number of unaccompanied migrant children at the facility has dropped by more than 40 percent since June, as increased staff and services are able to move children along more quickly. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

In transcripts of interviews done by attorneys and filed in federal court in Los Angeles last week, migrant children described their desperation to get out of Fort Bliss and the other large shelters set up by the Biden administration.

The children were interviewed from March to June by attorneys monitoring a longstanding settlement governing custody conditions for migrant children.

Some of the children said they did not know if anyone was working to reunite them with their families, giving them anxiety. Others did not have enough access to a mental health counselor, had trouble sleeping because lights were kept on at night and were avoiding meals because the food smelled foul. Several said they spent their days sleeping and had been in the facilities, like Fort Bliss, for more than a month.

Vice President Kamala Harris visited El Paso last Friday. Her spokeswoman, Symone Sanders, told reporters that President Joe Biden has instructed Becerra to "do a thorough investigation" and report back about the conditions in the tent camp at Fort Bliss, which advocates have called particularly troubling.

"The administration is taking this very seriously. Extremely seriously," Sanders said.

A White House official said later Friday that conditions have improved, adding that Biden did not order a formal investigation request and that the agency was already looking into the facility.

Shaw Drake, staff attorney and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, applauded the reduction in the number of children housed at Fort Bliss but questioned why it has taken this long to see real progress in releasing kids from the government's unlicensed shelters.

Drake praised the Biden administration for helping get children out of overcrowded holding facilities for adult migrants by opening more than dozen emergency shelters quickly. But, he said, "immediately after that the focus should have been to reunify children with sponsors, and it seemed like that languished and left kids in places like Fort Bliss far too long."

A rise in the number of migrant children crossing the southwest border alone has challenged the Biden administration. The Department of Health and Human Services has more than 14,200 migrant children in its care, down from 22,000 two months ago.

Becerra said more children are in licensed shelters now than unlicensed facilities, a reversal from a government report in May. He said officials are working to get more beds made available at licensed facilities.

"We have continued to expand our capacity, and as a result, we're able to discharge more of these children into the hands of a responsible, vetted custodian, which then frees up a bed for another child," he said.

Despite the improvements, Becerra said the shelters are not a solution and urged Congress to fix what he called a broken immigration system.

Unaccompanied Migrant Children
Unaccompanied migrants, ages 3 to 9, watch TV inside a playpen at the Rio Grande Valley's main detention center for unaccompanied children in Donna, Texas, on March 30. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Photo