The Biden administration is issuing new guidance that should speed up the safe release of unaccompanied children in custody of the Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and who have parents or relatives who are already in the United States, CBS News reports.
“If this is successfully executed, it will have a great impact on the number of kids in custody,” tweeted Bridget Cambria, an immigration attorney and advocate for detained children. CBS News reports the administration currently has about 11,000 children in HHS custody. “By releasing children already in custody more quickly, the government can make additional beds available for new arrivals.”
Previously, prospective sponsors including parents and relatives would fill out forms on their own. Under the new guidance, which has not been publicly released but was obtained by CBS News, case workers will now begin that process for them. Sponsors will still undergo background checks, but now that won’t be required of other adult members of the household who are not sponsors. Like previously noted, facilities will also cover the travel fees of children released to sponsors, as well as the travel fees of sponsors traveling to facilities to pick up children.
The previous administration had implemented a policy requiring all people in a household aside from potential sponsors be fingerprinted (“which Biden administration officials said created a ‘chilling effect’ for undocumented families,” CBS News said), but then changed that policy as an effort to more quickly release kids when that administration also saw many children coming to the southern border in search of safety in the 2018 fiscal year. That year, over 49,000 children came to the border. The next fiscal year, that number grew to about 80,000 children, the Los Angeles Times said.
But the Biden administration is today struggling to safely and humanely care for kids in large part because novel coronavirus pandemic standards have cut down on HHS’ capacity limits, leaving thousands of children stranded in unsafe Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities, many for well past the legal limit. According to CBS News, about 5,000 children were in CBP custody as of last weekend. Children are supposed to be transferred from these border facilities to HHS within 72 hours, but NBC News reported that as many as 500 had been held for as long as 10 days.
The administration, with the assistance of the American Red Cross, has begun to temporarily hold some children at a large convention center in Dallas as part of an effort to get them out of border facilities, some of which have been nicknamed hieleras, or iceboxes, by advocates because of freezing cold temperatures inside. “No child should be detained under CBP custody under inhumane conditions. None,” advocacy group RAICES tweeted. “The Biden administration must immediately transfer children to an HHS facility & reunite them with their families as soon as possible.”
”On Monday, San Diego officials announced that the Health and Human Services Department plans to convert the city's convention center into another temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors,” CBS News continued. “The installation would be the fifth emergency or influx housing facility for migrant children opened under President Biden, as well as the first one outside Texas.”
But advocates have expressed deep worry about these so-called influx facilities, because they lack the same kind of licensing as ORR facilities.
“Anytime a child is in government custody there has to be the highest of standards and absolute transparency and accountability. The concern with the influx facilities is that they’re not licensed by the state, so you’ve lost one of your checks,” Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) Vice President for Policy and Advocacy Jennifer Podkul recently told Mother Jones. “The Trump administration used them as a substitute for regular licensed facilities, so children stayed there for months, which was totally inappropriate. We certainly don’t think these influx and ‘decompression’ facilities are good for kids.” Following public outcry, President Biden earlier this month said he opposed the Florida prison camp that the administration had been moving to reopen.
The HHS guidance of more quickly releasing children to sponsors comes as the U.S. Senate has finally confirmed Xavier Becerra, the former California congressman and state attorney general nominated by President Joe Biden to lead the agency. Becerra was nominated in December but was confirmed only just last week. In a statement on the opening of the San Diego facility, ABC 10 News reports city leaders said that "[w]hen [Becerra] requested our help to house some of the unaccompanied minors at the border, we knew it was the right thing to do.”
“Over the weekend, we agreed to open our Convention Center to the federal government for use as a temporary shelter,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and County Supervisor Chair Nathan Fletcher said in the report. “
The City and County will support this federally funded effort by providing vital services to these vulnerable children who came to our country seeking safety. We are working closely with our federal partners to finalize the details for preparing to receive these young people and provide them with care, compassion and a safe space to transition while they are reunited with families or sponsors.”