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Biden administration to ‘ramp down’ emergency shelters for unaccompanied migrant children

Border patrol agent Joe Romero escorts four unattended migrant children. (BRIANA SANCHEZ/EL PASO TIMES/TNS)

The number of unaccompanied migrant children housed at a troubled emergency shelter at Fort Bliss dropped below 800 on Monday, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Sec. Xavier Becerra.

After a visit to the site Monday, Becerra said the Biden Administration is working to wind down operations at so-called “emergency intake sites” for unaccompanied minors but declined to say whether the Fort Bliss site would be shuttered.

“We will continue to ramp down on the emergency intake sites as we can accommodate the kids that we currently have, or are projecting to have,” Becerra said during a call with reporters Monday.

Protesters hold signs calling on Fort Bliss to close the emergency intake shelter. (Anthony Jackson/El Paso Times/TNS)

“But we have to have a place where they can stay,” he said, “because I think we all agree that adult detention facilities at CBP are not a place for children.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, aims to transfer newly arrived unaccompanied minors out of its holding stations and processing centers to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours.

This is Becerra’s second visit to the Fort Bliss site since it opened in March. During his first visit, he said, 4,400 children were staying onsite. As of Monday 790 children, all boys, were being housed there. The rest have been released to family members or sponsors in the U.S.

Diana Martinez, right, holds a sign Tuesday, June 8, 2021, calling to free migrant children during a protest outside Fort Bliss. (Anthony Jackson/El Paso Times/TNS)

Children have been arriving at the border without a parent or legal guardian in larger numbers since the spring, after global pandemic travel restrictions began easing and the Biden administration stopped using its emergency authority to quickly turn them back to their countries of origin.

The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement is required by law to take custody of unaccompanied minors at the border, providing them care and shelter while searching for a sponsor in the U.S.

As of June 24, HHS had more than 14,800 unaccompanied migrant children in its care.

Lourdes Vazquez, left, shouts in Spanish to free the children during a protest. (Anthony Jackson/El Paso Times/TNS)

The Fort Bliss “emergency intake site” is one of 14 such sites set up around the country.

Becerra’s second visit to the emergency shelter comes three days after Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday visited El Paso. Symone Sanders, spokeswoman for the vice president told reporters Friday aboard Air Force Two that the president and the vice president “have instructed Sec. Becerra to do a thorough investigation” and report back.

Current and former workers, civil servants and volunteers at the emergency shelter have alleged poor conditions at the site, which was set up to temporarily house 5,000 children and had room to expand to 10,000 children.

Adriana Cadena, the managing director for Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance. (Anthony Jackson/El Paso Times/TNS)

“In terms of any reports or allegations of lack of care or abuse, we handle those immediately whenever we get the report, we don’t wait, we handle each one as they come,” Becerra said. “We have obligations under law to do that and … we don’t just do it ourselves, we report it to local law enforcement authorities if it’s appropriate to do so.”

Becerra didn’t elaborate on how local law enforcement might intercede.

The U.S. military is not involved in the operation of the emergency shelter.

Alleged problems at the Fort Bliss site include the enormous size of the tents, large enough to hold up to 1,000 children; conditions that are provoking panic attacks and depression in the children; and case management challenges that kept some kids there for weeks at a time.

Veronica Frescas, a development coordinator with the Border Network for Human Rights. (Anthony Jackson/ El Paso Times/TNS)

In response to those reports, HHS has increased the number of mental health providers and case managers at the Fort Bliss site. The agency added more religious services and recreational activities for the children. An HHS spokeswoman said that children can drop their feedback in comment boxes throughout the facility. The comments, she said, are collected four times a day and reviewed.

“The administration is taking this very seriously — extremely seriously,” Sanders said Friday.


(c) 2021 the El Paso Times

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