The White House stopped short of calling a “crisis” the influx of unaccompanied migrant children entering U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody at the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in hundreds of kids reportedly still in CBP custody beyond the three-day limit to transfer them to HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
As of Monday, more than 3,200 children were being held in CBP facilities with nearly 1,400 of those in custody beyond the 72-hour limit, according to documents obtained by CBS News. Nearly 170 unaccompanied children are under the age of 13. ORR normally has more than 13,000 beds to house migrant children but that capacity was reduced to around 8,000 beds in response to COVID-19 social distancing requirements; only 500 beds were available near the border this week, CBS News reported. The administration said there are more children coming across the border than available housing facilities but has not confirmed numbers.
In fiscal year 2020, ORR reported that 16 percent of unaccompanied minors were ages 12 or under, 12 percent were 13 or 14 years old, 37 percent were 15 or 16 years old, and 35 percent were 17 years old. Nearly half were from Guatemala, with other top countries of origin Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. Two-thirds of unaccompanied minors were male, and the average length of stay in ORR care was 102 days.
“We are continuing to work to convey to people in the region that this is not the time to come, that the majority of people who come to the border will be turned away, which is factually accurate,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday. “And what we’re really talking about in terms of the people who are being let in are unaccompanied children. That is a policy decision which we made because we felt it was the most humane approach to addressing what are very difficult circumstances in the region. And that means there are more children — kids under the age of 18, of course — coming across the border.”
Asked if there was a “crisis at the border” currently, Psaki replied, “Look, I don’t think we need to sit here and put new labels on what we have already conveyed is challenging, we have conveyed is a top priority for the president, what our policy teams are working on every single day.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a group of administration officials including ORR director Cindy Huang and White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice on Saturday to visit a CBP tent facility processing undocumented migrants in Donna, Texas, followed by a trip to Carrizo Springs, Texas, to see a facility holding undocumented teenage migrants.
The White House said in a readout of the trip Sunday that officials on the trip received operational briefings and facility tours, and “discussed capacity needs given the number of unaccompanied children and families arriving at our border, the complex challenges with rebuilding our gutted border infrastructure and immigration system, as well as improvements that must be made in order to restore safe and efficient procedures to process, shelter, and place unaccompanied children with family or sponsors.”
The team was going to brief the president on the fact-finding mission before more policy specifics are released.
“Obviously, there was a trip to the border this weekend,” Psaki said. “They are working over the course of every day since then on putting in place policies that can help address what we’re saying and help ensure that we are keeping these kids safe and moving them as quickly as possible from Border Patrol facilities to shelters where they can have access to educational resources, health resources, mental health resources, legal aid, etc.”
CBP reported that from December to January all encounters — including OFO expulsions and inadmissibles and CBP apprehensions and expulsions — rose 6 percent. The number of family units encountered rose from 4,880 in December to 7,490 in January, and the number of unaccompanied minors increased from 4,995 to 5,871. (See the latest updated CBP southwest border statistics here.)
Psaki said there is a “range of factors that are leading individuals to come to the border.”
“Individuals are fleeing countries where individuals and families are fleeing prosecution, fleeing violence, fleeing economic hardships and other things,” she said. “The region has also experienced two hurricanes in the fall, putting further stress on the conditions in these countries and the circumstances that are facing individuals. And all of this is taking place during a global pandemic that has impacted other countries’ economies, placing undue hardships on its people, just as it did in the United States.”
The government is trying to address housing solutions that fall with COVID-19 guidelines, she said, noting that capacity will be returned to normal at HHS facilities in addition to safety measures such as increased ventilation, additional masking, etc. Additional housing facilities are also being explored.
“We’re also looking for ways that we can expedite the way that we vet and process families and sponsor host families where these kids can go because, of course, once they go from CBP facilities — which we are working to expedite that — we don’t want them to be in these CBP facilities,” Psaki said. “We want them to be in shelters as quickly as possible. And then ultimately, we want them to be in families and homes, where their applications can be processed. But we are looking to expedite the way that we consider, the way that we vet families and sponsor homes as well.”
Psaki said later in the briefing that the increase in undocumented children was expected in part because “we have a different policy than the last administration.”
“We’re not turning kids away at the border, unaccompanied children. We’re also of course not ripping them from the arms of their parents and so we know there is going to be an increased number of kids coming across the border,” she added. “There are several steps, as we’ve talked about a little bit, that we are working to address that.”
Psaki told reporters that “digging our way out of a dismantled, immoral, and ineffective immigration policy that was being implemented by the last administration that was largely based around funding for a border wall” was “going to take us some time.”
“We do want to put in place and modernize the immigration system, which means investing in smart security, which means creating a pathway to citizenship, which means funding and supporting efforts to address the root causes in the region,” she said. “And as a part of that, we want to ensure that there is effective processing at the border. We are not trying to close our borders. We are trying to keep — create an effective, moral, humane system. It’s going to take some time to do that.”
Mayorkas is expected to answer questions about border policy moving forward when he testifies next Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee.