Government officials opened a new emergency intake center for unaccompanied immigrant children Sunday to help ease overcrowded conditions in border custody, according to an email and government statistics reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
The Health and Human Services Department planned to open the emergency intake center as a way to cut down on the overcrowding at Border Patrol stations and facilities, where more than 4,200 children were in custody as of this weekend. Those facilities were not designed for minors, and the new center aims to place children in a setting more designed to their needs, according to government officials.
HHS officials planned to open the site on Sunday, according to a congressional notification sent this weekend, and the department confirmed its opening to BuzzFeed News.
The goal of the new intake center is to put children in a safer environment while officials work to get them to a family member or other sponsor, or a long-term shelter, an HHS spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. The site will be a temporary measure, officials said.
“All efforts will be made to safely release children to sponsors or transfer them to other ORR care providers as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “This approach will help decrease overcrowding at CBP facilities and ensure children are moved into ORR shelters, where children receive educational, medical, mental health, and recreational services until they can be unified with families or sponsors without undue delay.”
The email to congressional officials offered a window into the serious challenge the Biden administration faces at the southern border.
“CBP facilities are meant for short-term (72 hours or less) stays. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) program sites employing COVID-19 mitigation measures are more appropriate for children than over-capacity Border Stations,” the email read.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also alluded to the news on Sunday, when he said the government had informed him children would be sent to Midland, according to a local CBS affiliate.
US officials are struggling to keep up with the numbers of unaccompanied children at the border as they attempt to discharge them to shelters and facilities run by HHS, which are also strapped for beds. The border situation has become the latest challenge for President Joe Biden’s efforts to undo immigration policies set by his predecessor.
While the administration continues to turn back most immigrants at the southern border under a Trump-era order that cited the coronavirus, known as Title 42, unaccompanied children have been the exception.
CBS News first reported the government statistics of children in custody this weekend.
On Friday, the Biden administration announced that they 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.
Unaccompanied children from Central America who are picked up by Border Patrol agents are generally sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are housed in shelters across the country as they begin officially applying for asylum and wait to be reunited with family members in the US.
On Friday afternoon, US Citizenship and Immigration Services employees received an email describing how HHS officials had asked for volunteer support to 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.
Later, on Saturday, Mayorkas activated Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to help support the agency’s efforts to discharge the children from the Border Patrol facilities.
DHS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.