TORNILLO, TX - JUNE 19:  Children and workers are seen at a tent encampment recently built near the Tornillo Port of Entry on June 19, 2018 in Tornillo, Texas. The Trump administration is using the Tornillo tent facility to house immigrant children separated from their parents after they were caught entering the U.S. under the administration's zero tolerance policy.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Record number of children in border patrol custody at migrant facilities
03:48 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.

CNN  — 

The news from the southern border is alarming. The number of migrant children detained at the border has tripled in the last two weeks, and the government is straining to process them in a timely manner. CNN reports that over 3,700 migrant children are being held in Border Patrol custody, with about 2,800 of them awaiting placement in shelters for minors.

Raul A. Reyes

If any of this sounds sadly familiar, that’s because we’ve been here before. Both the Barack Obama and the Donald Trump administrations struggled to deal with unaccompanied children at the border, as well. Although their approaches were different, neither administration was able to come up with a compassionate solution for this recurring situation.

Now the pressure is on President Joe Biden to live up to his campaign promises and tackle the problem. And while this will be a Herculean task, Biden has an opportunity to show the world that the US can – and will – meet its obligations to vulnerable children.

To be clear, these child migrants have the legal right to claim asylum. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website, “You may apply for asylum with USCIS as an unaccompanied minor if you [a]re under 18 years old, [h]ave no lawful immigration status in the United States, [and h]ave no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody.”

Under current US policy, children who arrive at the border on their own are taken into custody by US Customs and Border Protection. Within 72 hours, they are then supposed to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which helps place the children with family members or sponsors.

But this system is inadequate for the number of children it must now process; consider that, on average, kids are now staying in Border Patrol facilities for 107 hours, which is longer than the 72-hour limit prescribed by law. And during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it is harder for the government to vet and secure sponsors for the children in a timely fashion.

To Biden’s credit, his administration is taking a more humane approach to immigration. He has ordered the reunification of children separated from their families during the previous administration. He has committed more aid to Central American countries, where many of this minors are coming from, provided certain conditions of good governance are met. And he is restarting the Central American Minors Program, which allows some migrant parents to apply to bring their children here to join them, on a two-year renewable basis. These are all positive and encouraging steps.

On the other hand, in February, the government reopened a Trump-era facility for migrant kids in Carrizo Springs, Texas. This is troubling, because it suggests that the Biden administration still plans on relying on the existing model for holding – or, as some advocates would say, imprisoning – children.

Yet we have seen that this model is broken: Across the country, during the Trump years, reports emerged of dangerous and unsanitary conditions in migrant facilities. (At the time, a government spokesperson said the facilities were run by people trained to meet the needs of the children.)

But, as the Washington Post has noted, many of these Border Patrol facilities where child migrants are held were built for adults, not kids. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says that no amount of detention is safe for a child.

What is needed is an overhaul of how our country treats unaccompanied child migrants. In the short-term, this will require a tremendous expansion of federal efforts to process them. FEMA should be enlisted to help with the intake of children, and then local governments and community-based organizations should be enlisted as partners to help secure safe placements.

Instead of investing in detention, the government should consider investing more resources in charities and nonprofit groups that want to help migrants.

Those children who have family members already in the US should be reunited with them as swiftly as possible. Those who do not should be provided with consistent, culturally sensitive case management.

Greater transparency throughout these processes will be essential. In the long run, the government will have to provide more manpower and capacity to treat these children fairly. Our immigration courts must also be expanded to deal with the backlog of asylum claims. And detention should be used only as a last resort, if at all.

Of course, none of this will be cheap. Yet neither is our current system. It costs $775 a day to keep a child in the Carrizo Springs facility. That is money that could be better spent to ensure that the best interests of children guide our policy towards young migrants.

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    In February, speaking about the reopening of the Texas facility for children, Biden said, “Our hope and expectation is that it won’t stay open very long, that we will be able to provide for every kid that comes over the border to safely be housed in a facility that is licensed.”

    Though his heart is in the right place, he needs to go bigger on this issue, and move toward a significantly different system. Think about it: Would you want your child in a “facility?”

    Biden should be applauded for his early moves on immigration. As he likes to say, “This is the United States of America. There has never been anything we have not been able to do when we have done it together.” He’s right – and now is his chance to deal effectively and compassionately with the unaccompanied children in our care.