A group of White House officials and members of Congress toured a facility holding unaccompanied migrant children in Texas on Wednesday in the company of a news camera, as the Biden administration has been under mounting pressure to give journalists access inside facilities housing migrant children as the number of unaccompanied kids in custody has ballooned in recent weeks.
The Carrizo Springs, Texas, facility is an example of the types of shelters the administration has been scrambling to find to accommodate children. These facilities, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, are equipped to provide medical services, sleeping quarters and other support.
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But amid Covid-19 constraints, there’s not been enough shelter space to house the growing number of arrivals, resulting in children staying in Border Patrol facilities, akin to jail-like conditions, for prolonged periods of time. The Carrizo Springs facility is far different from the Border Patrol location seen in images released by a congressman highlighting crowded conditions.
The Biden administration has yet to let news cameras inside US Customs and Border Protection facilities where children have been detained, on average, for longer than the 72 hours allowed under law, though CBP released government footage of one of those facilities earlier this week.
There are about 16,500 unaccompanied children in US custody, comprising around 4,900 in CBP custody and around 11,550 in HHS custody, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration would provide media access to those Border Patrol facilities as well.
“This is just the first step in the process of providing greater access to the media,” Psaki told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny at a White House briefing.
“We all agree that the Border Patrol facilities are not places where children should be. They are, children should be moving more quickly through those facilities, that is what our policy central focus is right now,” Psaki said.
The Carrizo Springs facility was initially opened under the Trump administration in 2019 to house a surge of unaccompanied minors coming across the border. It is intended to shelter minors, unlike Border Patrol facilities.
The facility is available for children ages 13 to 17, according to HHS. Since opening, 1,026 children have been placed at the shelter and 216 children have been discharged, the department says. There are currently 766 minors at the site. Capacity is 952.
According to a network reporter accompanying the delegation, 108 of the children in this facility have tested positive for Covid-19 and did so when they arrived. They are kept in negative air pressure dormitories and released after they have two negative Covid tests.
Upon arriving at the Carrizo Springs facility, children are given duffel bags full of clothes, shoes and a hygiene kit and are tested for Covid-19 before going to dormitories, according to the pool reporter who toured the Texas shelter with White House officials and lawmakers.
A typical day at the facility includes breakfast at 7 a.m., six hours of school and time to play outdoors, according to the pool reporter. Children were led to each of their activities calmly – and seemed to be in good spirits when interacting with the delegation, the pool reporter said, adding: “At no point did the facility seem overcrowded or chaotic.”
Lights go out around 10:30 p.m. The pool reporter said he was not allowed to speak with the kids but that several of them waved hello.
The Biden administration is scrambling to accommodate a surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the US-Mexico border that has overwhelmed and strained government resources.
As of Tuesday, more than 880 unaccompanied migrant children have been in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days, according to documents reviewed by CNN.
Federal law requires unaccompanied children to be turned over within 72 hours to HHS, which oversees a shelter network designed to house minors, but amid constraints related to the pandemic, children are staying in custody for longer than the 72-hour limit.
Asked about challenges facing the administration in finding space for children, Cindy Huang, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency under HHS, said: “One of the major challenges has been the Covid epidemic – so we have, and our office has been working, to build capacity but with Covid and the distancing related to Covid, that capacity was reduced by 40%. From the start, we were working under very constrained conditions.”
“This administration started on January 20 and from day one has been mobilizing an inter-agency solution,” she added.
Senior Biden administration officials traveled on Monday to Mexico to discuss managing migration with government officials.
Roberta Jacobson, the Biden administration’s coordinator for the southern border, Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, and State Department’s Northern Triangle special envoy Ricardo Zúñiga are on the trip. Gonzalez and Zúñiga are also traveling to Guatemala to hold meetings after the Mexico trip.
This story has been updated with further details of the visit and comments from the head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.