The Biden administration is facing an increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children crossing into the United States, placing added strain on a system operating under limited capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
US Customs and Border Protection has attributed the increase in arrests in part to instability in home countries, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and perceptions of instant shifts in US immigration policies.
The pandemic has taken a dramatic toll on Latin America, where Covid-19 cases and deaths have soared and economies once projected to grow have been decimated. The region was also hit with two devastating hurricanes. The decline in economic growth in 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service, is expected to worsen income inequality and poverty in the region.
Administration officials have urged migrants not to come to the US, arguing that changes to the US immigration system will take time to make. “They need to wait. It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday.
Here’s what to know about the situation at the US-Mexico border:
Who’s crossing the border?
The majority of border crossers since October are single adults, many of whom are from Mexico. In January, the US Border Patrol arrested more than 75,000 migrants on the southern border, up from around 71,000 in December, according to the latest data. Of those, single adults made up around 62,000 arrests.
But the increase from month to month is notable given that there’s usually a dip between December and January due to the holidays. It’s particularly concerning among families and unaccompanied children.
On average, over the last 21 days, the US Border Patrol arrested around 340 children who crossed the US-Mexico border alone, according to internal documents reviewed by CNN.
Border Patrol officials are the first to come in contact with children who cross the US border alone. After being taken into Border Patrol custody, unaccompanied children are turned over to the Health and Human Services Department.
There are approximately 7,700 unaccompanied children in HHS care. The department has around 13,650 beds to accommodate children when not under reduced capacity.
In 2019, the Trump administration faced large numbers of children and families at the US-Mexico border that overwhelmed facilities. While it’s difficult to compare today’s arrests with those of recent years because of the drastically different circumstances as a result of the pandemic, the increasing trend of children has raised concerns.
In January 2019, the year where there were surges on the border, the Border Patrol encountered around 5,100 unaccompanied children. This past January, Border Patrol took roughly 5,700 children who crossed the border alone into custody.
“The numbers are very high. They’re not the highest ever, but they’re particularly high for this time of year,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former Health and Human Services official. “There is some seasonal variation and usually the numbers are higher in springtime than in winter, so to see such high numbers in February is very unusual.”
What is Biden doing differently from Trump regarding kids?
The numbers of children coming into US custody may look higher when compared to last year because the Trump administration subjected children crossing the US-Mexico border alone to a policy that allowed for the swift removal of migrants.
The Biden administration has said it will not do that, meaning those unaccompanied minors are taken into US custody, instead of turned away.
How is the Biden administration treating other migrants?
Other migrants, like most families and single adults, are still subject to instant removal, barring some exceptions.
In a holdover from the Trump era, individuals encountered illegally crossing the US-Mexico border can be swiftly expelled from the United States with little consequence under a public health order put in place last March. That’s led to single adults trying to cross multiple times.
What does US law say about children in custody?
After being taken into Border Patrol custody, unaccompanied children have to be turned over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with the care of migrant children, barring exceptional circumstances.
Once in care, case managers will work to place children with a sponsor, like a parent or relative, in the US, but as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and precautions to avoid spread of Covid-19, the department is only able to use a little more than half of the beds it has for children.
CNN reported this week that the average time in Border Patrol facilities, which are not designed to hold children, was 77 hours, longer than the 72 permitted under US law.
Where are children held?
HHS has an expansive shelter network nationwide equipped to care for children until they can be placed with family in the United States. These shelters are separate from Border Patrol facilities, which are not intended to house children, and have been used under previous administrations.
Shelters have been operating under reduced capacity to account for Covid-19 precautions. But on Friday, the Biden administration notified facilities caring for migrant children that they can open back up to pre-Covid-19 levels, acknowledging “extraordinary circumstances” due to a rising number of minors crossing the US-Mexico border, according to a memo obtained by CNN.
HHS also recently opened an overflow facility in Texas to house children arriving at the US southern border without a parent or relative.
“We have to look for facilities and places where we can safely and humanely have these unaccompanied minors in the interim,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday.
What other facilities are being considered?
HHS also conducted a site survey at Fort Lee in Virginia to determine if facilities there might “be suitable for temporary housing for unaccompanied children” crossing the border, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Friday.
Kirby said a formal request from HHS has not been sent to the Department of Defense yet. He also said the Department has housed unaccompanied children in the past, citing a time when HHS asked for similar assistance in 2012 and 2017.
If the request did go through, children would be under the care of HHS, and the Pentagon would simply provide the space for housing, Kirby added.
“The children would be housed on the facilities in, usually base housing there, not for families, but barracks type housing, and they are under the responsibility and the care of HHS. The Department’s role would be to provide the space in a fully reimbursable format,” Kirby said.
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.