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There Are Extra Beds At Permanent Government Facilities, So Why Aren't Unaccompanied Kids Getting Sent There?

The Trump administration is arguing that a lack of open beds isn’t the issue.

Posted on July 19, 2019, at 1:58 p.m. ET

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The Trump administration has extra capacity to house unaccompanied immigrant children in permanent housing across the country, even though it is holding more than 1,000 children in controversial temporary holding facilities in Texas and Florida, according to government data obtained by BuzzFeed News this week.

The new data raises questions about Health and Human Services reliance on two “temporary influx facilities,” including at Homestead in Florida. Homestead has come under fire from advocates, attorneys, and presidential candidates who say it is ill-equipped to handle the needs of the young children in its care. Administration officials and the company that runs Homestead have rejected the concerns.

As of this week, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a subdivision of Health and Human Services, has a capacity of 11,957 permanent beds at one of the many nonprofit facilities the government contracts with across the country, according to the agency’s internal data.

As of Friday, however, the agency had around 10,700 kids in its care — with around 1,100 of them at Homestead and just below 200 at a former “man camp” for oil workers at Carrizo Springs in Texas, according to agency figures.

Since there are open beds at the permanent facilities, advocates are arguing immigrant kinds should be placed in them faster.

“Considering their current availability, the new funds they have received, and the explicit instructions they have from Congress to pursue permanent beds, it raises a lot of questions about why they continue to throw taxpayer dollars at an expensive facility like Homestead,” said Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

However, the Trump administration is arguing that a lack of open beds isn’t the issue, and is irrelevant to whether or not Homestead continues to operate.

Evelyn Stauffer, a spokesperson for the HHS, said the agency needs to keep the influx centers open as they deal with an unprecedented and unpredictable wave of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the border in recent months. Agency officials have said they will care for the highest number of unaccompanied children ever this year.

“Because of the large fluctuations in arrival numbers throughout the year, ORR maintains a mix of ‘standard’ beds that are available year-round, and ‘temporary’ beds that can be added or reduced as needed. Continuing to operate in emergency influx mode will successfully accommodate fluctuations in immigration patterns at this time,” she said. “Keeping the Homestead/Carrizo Springs shelter open is a prudent step to ensure that ORR is able to meet its responsibility, by law, to provide shelter for UAC referred to its care by DHS.”

She also argued that not every open bed in a permanent facility is appropriate for every unaccompanied child coming into their care, explaining that teenagers can’t be placed in beds that are reserved for a younger population. Some beds can held open for teenage mothers who have arrived with their children.

Homestead is no longer taking active referrals of children and the population at the facility has dropped dramatically in recent weeks. Stauffer said the priority was for children to be placed in permanent housing and with sponsors.

These statistics on open beds come the same week as Amnesty International, whose researchers visited Homestead, called on the Trump administration to immediately shut it down, alleging that the conditions were unlawful. The researchers noted that children were forced into highly regimented schedules and had barcodes on badges that needed to be scanned whenever they left the facility.

“Homestead is not a home for children,” said Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights and Amnesty International USA, in a statement. “Homestead is an industrial line for processing mass numbers of children, instead of focusing on their best interests."

Unaccompanied children who are picked up Border Patrol agents are placed into the ORR contracted facilities as the agency attempts to track down family members. The existence of excess capacity in non-influx spaces was met with concern by attorneys on a decades-old lawsuit over care of children in government custody.

“If there is capacity in ORR licensed placement, then the use of influx facilities would be a violation of the Flores settlement agreement,” said Holly Cooper, one of the lead attorneys on the case, which requires the government to place children in the least restrictive setting possible.

Influx facilities are less preferable to house unaccompanied minors as they are generally bigger spaces that don’t feature the same level of access to educational and recreational activities, said Robert Carey, former head of ORR. As of July, the average stay at Homestead is just over a month for unaccompanied children.

“Why are they not placing them in permanent shelters?” Carey wondered, while noting that the answer was not entirely clear.

Earlier this week, members from the House Appropriations Committee toured the facility and said it was unacceptable and inadequate. The center is run by Caliburn International, a for-profit company, which received a no-bid contract worth up to $341 million. They have said repeatedly that the conditions are adequate and that the staff provides dedicated care to the children.

The new capacity figures come just weeks after HHS received additional funding as part of the $4.3 billion border supplemental passed by Congress.

Mark Greenberg, a former HHS official, said that closing and restarting temporary facilities can be unduly expensive for the federal government, especially as the rates of unaccompanied minors who cross the border continue to vary and are unpredictable over time. The number of children apprehended at the border dropped from a high of around 11,500 in May to just over 7,000 in June.

He said the capacity issues need to be monitored moving forward.

“If there are available beds in standard shelters, it is important to move children out of influx shelters as soon as is feasible,” he said. “And if that is not happening over a period of time, it does raise questions as to why not.”

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