The US government is taking new steps to speed up releases of unaccompanied children to parents or other sponsors as the Biden administration grapples with a growing number of underage migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, earlier this month reversed a policy put in place by former Republican President Donald Trump that allowed US authorities to rapidly expel migrant children caught at the border without their parents. The expulsion policy is still in place for most migrants, including families and individual asylum seekers.
In January, US Border Patrol caught 7,300 unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally, the highest number of arrests in the month of January in at least a decade and up from 4,500 a month earlier.
Children apprehended at the border are now subject to a process outlined in US law and standard before Trump's order: they are held briefly in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and then transferred to government shelters before being released to their parents or other adults in the United States. From there, the children can pursue their claims for asylum or other protection in immigration court, some with help from lawyers or sponsors.
On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reopened an emergency shelter in Texas and is also considering reopening a controversial facility in Florida, a sign of the scramble to find housing for the children. Shelter capacity was greatly reduced due to coronavirus social distancing, and existing facilities are close to full.
HHS, which oversees shelters for migrant children, is in the process of switching to a new database that could cut hours or days from the time it takes to perform background checks for sponsors, said a department official who requested anonymity to discuss internal operations.
The department on Wednesday sent out new guidance to shelter operators saying they could pay for transportation for unaccompanied minors, including flights, in cases where sponsors cannot pay. Previously, providers needed special approval for that step.
The Biden administration also withdrew this week a Trump administration proposal that advocates said would have kept children in government custody for longer periods of time.
The proposed Trump changes set a firm deadline for sponsors to submit information to prove their relationship to the child or risk being denied custody, which advocates said could have resulted in more kids stuck in shelters.
The proposal was just "another way that the Trump administration was trying to frustrate the reunification process," said Jennifer Podkul from the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, which provides legal representation for children.
The Biden administration simultaneously proposed its own changes this week to several forms used related to custody requests by potential sponsors of unaccompanied children.
As part of the changes, which could go into effect after 60 days, HHS would no longer ask sponsors for their Social Security numbers on the forms.
Such questions could discourage immigrant relatives living in the country illegally from coming forward to claim a child.
As of Monday, more than 800 unaccompanied children were being held in CBP facilities waiting for transfer to shelters, creating a potentially dangerous health situation, an agency official who requested anonymity to share the information, told Reuters.
A CBP spokeswoman would not confirm the figures.
On Wednesday night, border agents in South Texas arrested a group of 130 migrants made up primarily of families and unaccompanied children, according to CBP. Arrests of large groups "have become a common occurrence" in the Rio Grande Valley, the agency said in a statement.
Chad Wolf, former acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under Trump, said the Trump administration generally sought to step up vetting of sponsors of unaccompanied children.
"We wanted to make sure that we weren’t putting those children in harm's way," he said.
The moves by the Biden administration to speed up releases come as the president has faced criticism from fellow Democrats for re-opening emergency shelters used to house children during the Trump administration.
"This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay - no matter the administration or party," Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, tweeted on Tuesday in response to a news report about the opening of the Texas facility.
HHS reduced its available bed space for unaccompanied children by 40 percent to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It now only has around 7,700 available beds, including those at the emergency facility, and 7,100 children in custody, a representative said.