Secretary Xavier Becerra's Challenges Include Getting Migrant Kids Out of Lengthy HHS Custody

Migrant children moved from temporary Border Patrol custody to shelters run by Health and Human Services (HHS) are remaining there for an average of 34 days as the federal department scrambles to quickly and safely reunify them with parents or sponsors amid an influx of unaccompanied minors and families at the southern border.

With 11,100 children in custody, the spotlight has turned to newly confirmed HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who takes the reins of an agency trying to control not just a pandemic but also a simmering border crisis.

Eskinder Negash knows Becerra, having worked in the California district the former congressman represented for 20 years. But he also knows HHS, having led the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which runs the shelters for the department, during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2015. He sees the combination of Becerra at HHS and Alejandro Mayorkas at the Department of Homeland Security—the first two Latinos to lead the respective agencies—as a "dream team" to deal with arriving children and immigration in general.

But Negash also noted that 34 days in HHS custody is too long and a number that Becerra will likely have to bring down.

"Due to the mission of the program, it's not ideal to keep kids in shelter for 30 to 40 days," Negash, who dealt with an influx of migrants faced by Obama both in 2012 and 2014, told Newsweek. He said a better number would be fewer than 25 days in custody. "You want to release them quickly to a sponsor and a safe and stable home," he said.

HHS described its priorities and strategies in a recent call with reporters, including reuniting children with parents or legal guardians more expeditiously, vetting possible sponsors quickly and safely, paying for flights or transportation if it would speed up the process, reaching out to known family members even before children are moved from Border Patrol custody to HHS custody, and increasing shelter capacity.

An administration official addressed Texas Governor Greg Abbott's request to have access to the children while in custody to learn if kids were victims of human trafficking, saying that these are children who have faced persecution and that there is an interest in avoiding "retraumatizing them" by having them repeatedly tell their story to new people.

Becerra's role in implementing these priorities and leadership going forward will be watched by allies and opponents of the administration as it tries to get a handle on the influx at the border as the weather for migration improves with warmer temperatures.

"The first thing he should do is call Secretary Mayorkas, and both of them should go to the border and look at the conditions of the children," Negash said. "I know firsthand how challenging these influxes are. The interest of each child is a core issue for ORR. So it would be important to go to the border, meet the children, look at the condition they are in and make decisions on expedited release from [Customs and Border Protection] to ORR."

He also said Becerra and ORR should ensure the children have "universal post-release services" or case management for up to a year because of the challenging circumstances of their journey and arrival in the United States and because they may not be able to immediately go to school as the pandemic continues.

While border travel by the secretaries has not been announced, National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said Monday that Roberta Jacobson, coordinator for the southwest border, and Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere, will travel to Mexico and Guatemala, respectively, to continue developing a plan to manage migration effectively and humanely.

The Biden administration has faced criticism from both progressives and Republicans over its handling of the border situation, but the number of children in custody is still well below the peaks reached in 2018 and 2019 during the Trump administration. Those numbers were above current levels from June 2018, when there were 11,531 unaccompanied children in custody, to June 2019, when there were 13,432 kids in HHS custody, according the HHS data. A peak of 14,226 kids in custody during the crisis was reached in December 2018.

Mark Greenberg was Obama's acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, working closely with ORR on the unaccompanied children program, and was also part of the Biden administration's transition. He said that "relative to recent years," Biden's average of 34 days for children in HHS custody is good.

"In the Obama years, the average length of stay was something in the 30s. It got up into the 60s and 90s in the Trump years, with it being 90 days during September 2018," he said.

The impact of family separation—along with a policy of fingerprinting children and parents seeking to be reunited with their children, and inefficient information sharing between agencies—greatly increased the time in custody during the Donald Trump years, Greenberg said.

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday on Air Force One that Becerra's team was doing the work of bringing increased capacity to the border to deal with the situation, including having HHS and ORR embedded into Customs and Border Protection "to make sure that we're moving this as quickly as possible."

"I genuinely don't know if there are decisions waiting for [Becerra], things people have held off on," Greenberg said, reflecting on the rapid speed with which decisions are being made to manage the influx. While many Biden officials have blamed Trump's actions and policies, Greenberg put a finer point on it, noting that HHS had built up 13,000 bed operational capacity for arriving children. While coronavirus protocols greatly reduced those numbers by 40 percent, the previous administration did nothing to build up those numbers again, leaving a ticking time bomb for the incoming Biden administration.

Becerra's high-stakes role clearly comes with promise and peril for the longtime former congressman and California attorney general. His confirmation means Biden has the largest number of first-term Latino Cabinet members in U.S. history.

"We applaud President Biden for his historically diverse cabinet," said Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS, one of the top Latino civil rights organizations in the country. "No president has ever had four Hispanics in the Cabinet at this point in their administration."

But Becerra immediately faces political pressure from the left and Latino leaders, who are putting the weight of transforming HHS squarely on his shoulders after the "neglect" and "abuse" it suffered under the Trump administration.

"I'd like to see him get vaccines out to essential workers. There are many Latinos and Latinas at risk for hospitalizations and deaths," League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) President Domingo Garcia said. "But, second, we do need to make sure we have humane and healthy centers for these children coming across the border to make sure these children are processed immediately and get the help they need to be reunited with their families."

Xavier becerra
Xavier Becerra, nominee for secretary of health and human services, makes an opening statement during his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on February 24. Greg Nash-Pool