WASHINGTON – The Biden administration plans to reopen a controversial overflow facility to house unaccompanied migrant teenagers as the government grapples with the possibility of a surge in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, will house up to 700 migrant children within the next two weeks, according to a statement Tuesday from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is responsible for migrant children. The temporary Influx Care Facility will be used for children ages 13 and older who have been medically cleared of COVID-19, the statement said.
The move came after President Joe Biden signed a raft of executive orders aimed at unwinding the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies, including establishing a task force to reunify children separated from their parents or guardians at the border under former President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
As he seeks to fulfill his campaign promise to swiftly undo Trump’s immigration actions, Biden is facing hurdles because of the rise in migrant apprehensions at the Southwest border and reduced capacity at facilities over COVID-19 concerns.
A White House official said the flow of unaccompanied minors presenting themselves border preceded the Biden administration but said the pandemic has posed a challenge in the maximum number of children a facility can hold.
“The pandemic requires us to rethink capacity and to be extra cautious about COVID-19 protocol and social distancing, not just in the context of unaccompanied minors but also what processes and staff presence is going to look at a potential facility,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The two other orders signed Tuesday call for placing Trump-era immigration policies under review – rather than outright ending the practices – including the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “remain in Mexico” policy, that forced migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexico while waiting to plead their case before a judge.
The administration has sidestepped questions about its plans for Title 42, a public health law invoked by Trump amid a rise in COVID-19 cases that allows border officials to quickly expel unauthorized migrants without due process.
A U.S. district judge in November ordered the government to stop expelling unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, saying the policy violated legal safeguards Congress established to protect the minors. But last week, a three-member panel of circuit judges allowed U.S. border officials to continue the practice.
Biden has vowed not to expel any more youths under the policy. But where to temporarily house unaccompanied minors should the practice cease will be a challenge, said Alysha Welsh, a managing attorney at Human Rights First.
Welsh said she and others will be monitoring facilities like Carrizo Springs closely to make sure the minors are treated the same as in under state-licensed facilities.
“If six weeks from now we find out they’re not meeting state standards, then it’s cause for concern,” she said.
The Carrizo Springs facility was shuttered in July 2019 after the Trump administration faced blowback for the poor conditions at the temporary facilities, or “tent cities,” where unaccompanied children were held.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement called the opening one step to prevent unaccompanied children from remaining in Border Patrol care, adding that it would “ensure that children are placed in an appropriate setting where they can receive care and services, such as education, medical and mental health care, counseling, recreation, and access to legal services.”
Under the Flores Settlement agreement, the result of a federal class action lawsuit dealing with immigrant youth, most unaccompanied immigrant minors who cross the border, with or without authorization, must be transferred to a government shelter under the auspices of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, usually within 20 days.
Migrant children held at Carrizo Springs are expected to be released to a sponsor within 30 days, the statement said.
Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio immigration attorney who frequently represents unaccompanied minors, said she was surprised to hear of the reopening of Carrizo Springs. She said she wasn’t aware of an influx of youth at the border and didn’t know why they would need it. The ORR facilities usually have child care features, are designed for children and, most importantly, are licensed by the state and have state oversight – none of which so-called “influx facilities” like the Carrizo Springs center usually have, she said.
“They fall through the cracks of oversight which is why we’ve been very concerned about the creation of those types of systems,” Brandmiller said.
She added: “There’s no reason to warehouse these children in these potentially dangerous facilities.”
The reopening of the Carrizo Springs facility underscored the challenges that lay ahead for Biden on immigration.
His administration last month ended the Migrant Protection Protocols, where migrants were forced to await their U.S. immigration hearing in Mexico. But challenging questions remain, including whether to allow in the more than 20,000 migrants amassed in makeshift Mexican border camps and where to house them once they cross the border.
And if the Biden administration ends quick deportations, it will also need somewhere to house the immigrants that remain in this country, a task made doubly challenging due to spacing requirements under COVID-19 protocols.
Biden faced a similar crisis as vice president in 2014, when the Obama administration cracked down on immigration amid an influx of unaccompanied migrants, most from Central America. Former President Barack Obama faced considerable scrutiny for mass deportations and use of temporary facilities to house children and families.
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Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA cautioned that the U.S. needed to limit the amount of time children are held in these facilities.
“The United States government needs to ensure that children are released swiftly, not held in these temporary facilities, and given all access to health care and protection against COVID-19,” she said.
“There’s no reason for children to be held for lengths periods of time, and children need to be reunited with their families and their communities. In the interim, children must be placed in child-appropriate settings. Temporary emergency shelters are never a home for children,” Bell said.