Migrant Advocates Ask Biden Admin Why Children Are Being Kept in Unlicensed Facilities

Migrant advocates are questioning why the Biden administration is taking so long to release children from unlicensed facilities to families in the U.S., the Associated Press reported.

Advocates, who described conditions as lacking and troublesome, interviewed more than a dozen migrant children being held at the facilities between March and June. They filed cases for the children Monday with a Los Angeles federal court that determines custody for unaccompanied minors who crossed the border.

Despite record highs in the number of children crossing the border, the Biden administration points to notable improvements in addressing problems. Children housed in emergency shelters dropped from a peak of approximately 14,500 in April to 8,000 currently, the Department of Health and Human Services said.

At a Texas facility, a 16-year from Honduras said he hadn't been able to see a case manager for more than three weeks and was feeling "desperate," adding, "I don't know when this will end."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Migrant Children
Young unaccompanied migrants, from ages 3 to 9, watch television inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, on March 30. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Photo

At the Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas, the administration's largest emergency shelter, the number of children has dropped from about 4,800 to 1,600. Activities like exercise classes and weekly meetings with case managers are now available, along with a library on site that children can visit anytime, the department said.

In their accounts, the children—who are not named in the court filings—describe waiting for weeks or more than a month in facilities with little to do, minimal education and no knowledge of when they will be allowed to leave.

At Fort Bliss, the Honduran girl put on a suicide watch said she could hardly sleep at night because the lights were always on and she found herself sleeping during the day. She said the food was horrible, including soggy salad and foul-smelling bread, so she resorted to eating only popsicles and juice.

She said that while on suicide watch, pens and pencils were taken from her and guards observed her every move—measures meant to protect her from harming herself.

She said she was told if she tried to escape, she would spend a longer time in detention. When she filed her account, she said she had been at the facility for nearly 60 days and didn't know when she could go live in New Mexico with her uncle, who told her that he had completed the paperwork for her release.

"I have been here for a really long time. I really want to leave," she said.

Record arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children have tested the Biden administration, which has picked up nearly 60,000 of them from February to May, many of them from Central America.

The government opened more than a dozen emergency intake sites this spring to respond quickly to overcrowding at Customs and Border Protection facilities, one of which was holding 4,000 people in a space intended for 250 and keeping many for weeks, far past a three-day limit.

At the emergency sites, children were expected to remain for a week or two until they could be reunited with relatives in the United States or sent to more stable locations, such as state-licensed long-term facilities or foster care.

More than 2,100 children were housed at emergency facilities for over 40 days and more than 2,600 for 21 to 40 days at the end of May, according to the government's June report to the court. About a third of transitional foster care beds remained empty, as did nearly 600 beds at licensed shelters, the report said.

In their court filing this week, advocates who say children are languishing in the massive, tent-like structures questioned why the government is keeping so many in those unlicensed shelters rather than placing them in licensed facilities or with foster families.

After this many months, that "remains a complete mystery to us," said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law and one of the lawyers for children in the federal case. "And it's not for lack of asking the question. We're simply not getting an answer."

A hearing is scheduled for next week with the federal judge overseeing the case.

All emergency shelters are required to provide clean, comfortable sleeping spaces, toiletries, laundry and access to medical and mental health services, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Kids also can confidentially submit feedback in comment boxes.

The government contends it shut down any sites that did not meet those standards and are closing more as the need decreases.

But advocates fear more children could end up at the unlicensed emergency sites because Texas Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the closure of federally funded shelters that house migrant kids in that state. The Biden administration has threatened to take legal action if the Republican governor carries out the order. More than half of migrant children sheltered by the U.S. government in licensed facilities are in Texas.

At a facility in Houston that has since closed, a 17-year-old from El Salvador said she couldn't shower for eight days and was told to turn her underwear inside out because there was no laundry. She said that children were limited on when they could use the bathroom and that she would cry at night.

"We spent most of the day in our beds at Houston because there was nothing else to do," she said. "I felt very desperate."

Texas Border
Three young migrants hold hands as they run in the rain at an intake area after turning themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Roma, Texas, on May 11. Gregory Bull/AP Photo