(CNN) — Migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone remain in Border Patrol custody for more than three days on average, an overwhelming capacity at border facilities and indicates a crisis that is taking shape, according to internal documents reviewed by CNN.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) documents dated Tuesday show an increasing trend of unaccompanied children arriving in U.S. custody at levels beyond the capacity of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to house them, given the limited shelter capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On average, over the past 21 days, the U.S. Border Patrol, part of Customs and Border Protection, arrested about 340 children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, according to preliminary data described in the document. . The average time spent at Border Patrol facilities, which are not designed to house children, was 77 hours, more than the 72 allowed by the law U.S.
Pressure on capacity is an indicator of the enormous challenges facing the department.
In Yuma, Arizona, there were more than 600 people, of all ages, in custody in a space designed for 104, according to the data. And in the Rio Grande Valley, more than 2,000 people were in custody in a room for 715. The numbers can fluctuate daily.
The Biden administration has been reluctant to call the unfolding situation on the US-Mexico border a crisis, instead referring to it as a challenge.
It’s a stressful challenge. That is why, frankly, we are working as hard as we are, not only to address the urgency of the challenge, but also to develop the capacity to handle it, ”said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at the White House on Monday.
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Increasing number of arrests
Customs and Border Protection officials are the first to come into contact with children crossing the United States border alone. After being taken into the custody of the Border Patrol, unaccompanied children are released to HHS.
During the Trump administration, border officials turned away the vast majority of migrants, including children, returning to Mexico or their home countries to people crossing the border, using a public health order related to the pandemic.
While the Biden administration has continued to rely on that policy, it no longer applies it to unaccompanied children and some families, resulting in more people in custody.
In January, more than 5,800 unaccompanied children and nearly 7,500 families were detained by Customs and Border Protection at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the agency’s most recent monthly data, compared to December. The numbers are expected to rise.
A former Homeland Security official characterized the growing trend as reminiscent of 2019, when border officials encountered record numbers of unaccompanied children and migrant families, resulting in facilities at full capacity.
“The speed at which people are crossing borders is exceeding the levels we saw in 2019,” the former official said.
In January 2019, the year there were waves at the border, the Border Patrol he found 5,515 unaccompanied children.
“The challenge right now is that in addition to the limited capacity, there is a covid umbrella over it all, restricting HHS’s ability to remove people from custody, with the additional historical issues ORR has had in dealing with the operational challenge at the border, “added the official, referring to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency under HHS in charge of the care of migrant children.
Customs and Border Protection acknowledged the increases in border crossing.
“The number of encounters at the border has increased since April 2020, due to various factors including violence, insecurity and hunger in the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America,” the agency said in a statement to CNN. “As has always been the case, the number of people crossing the border continues to fluctuate and we continue to adapt accordingly. We cannot share the specific number of (unaccompanied minors) found, outside of the monthly totals, as they are sensitive in terms of law enforcement.
Limited shelter capacity
To expand capacity to house migrants, CBP opened a “soft-sided” structure in Donna, Texas, and is building another in Eagle Pass, Texas. At least four more “softer” facilities are being considered, although the locations have not been defined, according to a senior official with the Department of Homeland Security. Additional Border Patrol agents are also being deployed to assist with processing.
As a result of the pandemic and precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, HHS is only able to use slightly more than half of the beds it has for children. That means children staying in border facilities that are not intended for their care for longer periods of time.
“We are not up to date,” an HHS official told CNN this week, referring to the department’s ability to care for unaccompanied migrant children. As of Tuesday, capacity was 94% full.
The Department of Homeland Security is exploring locating HHS personnel at Border Patrol stations to immediately begin the placement process and determine if a child has a relative in the United States, Mayorkas said Monday, calling it “reengineering” of the process.
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In a separate effort to expedite the investigation of the children’s sponsors, HHS is working on a data technology system that would update information in real time and connect with the FBI for background checks, cutting hours, if not days. , of the process without taking shortcuts, the HHS official said.
However, until a child is released to a sponsor, HHS still has to find space to place them in its network of shelters.
The agency is adjusting its guidelines, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to bring more beds online by easing some of the precautions previously implemented in the pandemic.
That includes wearing double masks, encouraging staff to get vaccinated, adding more tests, organizing children to allow more than one in a room, and establishing more licensed facilities.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism