A week after federal health officials relaxed pandemic restrictions and allowed shelters to expand to full capacity, the Biden administration on Friday said it had reactivated more than 200 beds for unaccompanied immigrant children and rescinded a Trump-era agreement that had led to the arrest of sponsors who stepped forward to take them in.
The moves are the latest in a series of efforts to deal with a recent spike of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border who have ended up in Border Patrol custody, jumping to more than 3,700 this week, according to government statistics reviewed by BuzzFeed News. Officials have struggled to meet the demand and move kids out of Border Patrol stations, which are meant for adults, and into shelters.
Authorities are also struggling to meet the government mandate of moving unaccompanied immigrant children out of Border Patrol facilities and into the custody of Health and Human Services (HHS) within three days.
Last Friday, the CDC said it was restoring shelter capacity to pre-pandemic levels in an attempt to move children out of border facilities, but increasing bed space will take time. On a call with reporters, senior Biden administration officials said decisions to increase shelter space are made by state health officials and each has their own standards.
"It's not us being able to turn on a light switch," said one official. "It's our responsibility to make sure that children are not in Border Patrol stations for a second longer than they have to be. We have more beds than we've ever had as an agency, but obviously, because of the COVID pandemic, our capacity has been cut substantially."
Despite mounting criticism, the Biden administration also recently reopened a facility for unaccompanied immigrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, in an attempt to accommodate the rising numbers. The facility opened in summer 2019 following disturbing reports of immigrant children being held in dirty, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions inside Border Patrol facilities — a scenario officials are trying to avoid now.
The Biden administration also said it rescinded a 2018 Trump-era agreement that led to arrests of sponsors of unaccompanied immigrant minors in an attempt to encourage would-be sponsors from coming forward.
As part of the previous agreement, HHS, the parent agency for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which houses immigrant children, handed over fingerprints and other information from sponsors to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The agreement and subsequent arrests of these sponsors — mostly because they were undocumented — led to a chilling effect and decreased the pool of adults who could take custody of unaccompanied children.
Rescinding the agreement was in large part symbolic, as much of it had already been tabled through directives and litigation, but government officials hope Friday's announcement will make it clear that immigration authorities will not be receiving sponsor information.
"If you are a family member, or a potential sponsor of an unaccompanied child, I'm not sure how much you're getting into the weeds in terms of the operational directives or the litigation there," a senior administration official said. "We absolutely believe that this will have an impact... There will not be immigration consequences for coming forward and taking care of these kids."
On Friday afternoon, USCIS employees received an email describing how HHS officials had asked for volunteer support to help them care for and assist unaccompanied immigrant children at the border. HHS, the email said, needed volunteers to do in-person interviews with children, contact potential sponsors of the children, and serve as youth care workers at the HHS facilities themselves.
The email came several days after DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had similarly asked for volunteers across the agency for support at the border.
In an attempt to shorten the vetting of potential sponsors, officials said ORR staff has also been sent to Border Patrol facilities to start the process even before the unaccompanied child is placed in the refugee agency's custody.
"That's going to shave hours if not days off of our process to ensure that we're uniting those children with their family members and sponsors as quickly as possible," a senior administration official said.