Administration officials said on Thursday that the federal government actually has more than 14,000 migrant children in its custody, while insisting that the situation on the southern border is not a “crisis.”
President Joe Biden and his top advisors are working feverishly to find solutions to the border crisis, including expanding capacity to house unaccompanied children and partnering with Mexico to better control the influx of Central American migrants.
According to officials, the Department of Health and Human Services has over 9,500 children in its care, while US Customs and Border Protection has about 4,500. This is an improvement from earlier in the week. According to an HHS official, the average period of stay for a child in HHS custody is 34 days.
The situation has sparked controversy, with some suggesting that Biden’s more accepting approach on migrants caused an influx of migrants from Central America. In an interview this week, Biden attempted to debunk the notion.
However, as the number of children in federal custody grows, the White House is under pressure to come up with a solution that both solves the issue and maintains Biden’s more humane approach.
Senior administration officials briefed reporters on Thursday, arguing that it was former President Donald Trump’s policies that put them in this position, and that migrant flows should be expected.
“Children presenting themselves at the border is not a national crisis,” said one of the officials said on the condition of anonymity.
“January 20 was not suddenly the moment the border looked differently. Numbers increase and decrease all the time,” the official said. “Adults are being turned back. Most families are being turned back. We can process and protect children coming to our borders seeking help as the law requires and our administration is doing that.”
Despite the administration’s attempts to downplay the current migrant surge, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday that CBP is on track to meet more people on the border than in the previous 20 years. According to him, the department encounters children as young as six and seven years old.
Mayorkas’ appearances on television this week, along with briefings from officials, were meant to demonstrate that the administration is on top of the situation. Republicans, as well as some Democrats, have chastised Biden for his handling of the situation.
The majority of adult migrants and migrant families are being detained, according to administration officials. They did admit, however, that Mexico’s willingness to accept migrants, especially those with young children, was limited. They also stated that the Biden administration would not send unaccompanied minors back to their home countries.
“We’re dealing with the hand that we were dealt. The President inherited a mess,” an official said. “We have a whole of government approach to clean up the mess.”
Officials said on Thursday that the administration’s current priority is on increasing space at its facilities and speeding up the processing of unaccompanied children so that they can leave the government’s custody more rapidly.
This involves changing Covid-19 protocols to allow more people into each facility, building new facilities, and paying for children’s flights or transportation to be reunited with family members or guardians.
Officials also stated that they were working across diplomatic channels to resolve the root causes of Central American migration, which include crime, poverty, and this year’s two destructive hurricanes.
Those measures, however, are more long-term. For the time being, the administration announced that it was attempting to rapidly scale up capacity at new CBP facilities in Texas and Arizona in order to house incoming migrants while still offering a basic level of comfort.
The CBP temporary processing center in Donna, Texas, which holds the bulk of the unaccompanied children arriving at the border, “has been designed to be able to offer the best treatment possible under the circumstances,” according to an official.
Three meals a day, daily snacks, freedom of mobility, phone calls, showers, and occasional outdoor leisure time, according to the official.
“I would suggest that there are people trying their best to provide treatment in a facility that was not built to house large numbers of children,” an official said.
DHS has repeatedly declined media requests to visit the Donna facility, citing Covid restrictions. Although the White House said on Wednesday that it would consider making images taken by an administration delegation of the Donna facility public, it sounded doubtful a day later.
“There was a private briefing, an internal briefing from several weeks ago. We typically don’t provide those materials publicly, but we do want you to be able to, or a pool of media to be able to have your own visuals and get your own footage of these facilities,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.