The growing number of unaccompanied children at the border is adding greater stress to the system and has overwhelmed resources, which had already been strained as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest update comes as the Biden administration races to devise solutions to address the evolving situation on the US-Mexico border — which the administration is not calling a crisis — including scaling up capacity to house unaccompanied children and speeding up the process that would allow them to move out of the government’s care more quickly.
There are more than 600 children who have been in custody for more than 10 days, documents show. Federal law requires unaccompanied children to be turned over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees a shelter network designed to house minors, but amid constraints related to the pandemic, children are staying in custody for longer than the 72-hour limit.
On average, children are staying in Border Patrol custody in jail-like facilities for an average of more than five days.
In that setting, children are alternating schedules to make space for one another in confined facilities, some kids haven’t seen sunlight in days, and others are taking turns showering, often going days without one, according to case managers, attorneys and Border Patrol agents.
Bunk beds have been brought in to one of the processing facilities to help accommodate the influx of children. “Some of those are up to three bunks high,” an agent told CNN, adding that children are also sleeping on plastic cots and mats on the floor and benches.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a bipartisan Senate delegation to El Paso, Texas, on Friday to see what’s happening on the ground. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted about overcrowded conditions.
“Just left the border processing facility. 100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents,” he said on Twitter.
After children are taken into Border Patrol custody, they’re turned over to HHS. But the department has been strained trying to accommodate the influx since shelters had until recently been operating under limited capacity because of the pandemic.
HHS is also planning on activating the Target Lodge Pecos North property as another temporary influx care facility in Texas for unaccompanied migrant children, the department told CNN.
The property will initially accommodate around 500 children, with the potential to expand to 2,000, the department said, but it did not provide a date when the lodge will be used.
This story has been updated with additional details.