Kai Wright: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Kai Wright host of WNYC's United States of Anxiety, I'm in for Tanzina Vega, who's back later this week.
Speaker 1: This is heartbreaking. It's a very emotional issue for a lot of people and it's very difficult and challenging. Obviously, these CBP facilities are not made for kids.
Speaker 2: He said they've never seen so many unaccompanied children, holding hands and walking up to him with nobody in sight. Did you ever envision that for your children?
Speaker 1: There are not that many options. The options are, and we have a lot of critics, but many of them are not putting forward a lot of solutions.
Kai: In contrast to his predecessor, President Joe Biden promised to establish an immigration system that was empathetic to asylum seekers, but a surge of unaccompanied minors along the US-Mexico border is putting an early strain on the Biden administration's approach to immigration.
Unlike former President Trump, Biden is no longer using a health order to expel unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border. It's been reported that as of this weekend, there are 4,200 teens and children in detention facilities meant for adults. In an attempt to alleviate overcrowding, the Biden administration announced last weekend that the president has directed FEMA to expedite the processing of migrant children at the border.
FEMA is also being deployed to provide minors with shelter, food, and proper medical attention. But some Democrats, including representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, has spoken out against the conditions a the facilities in which minors are being housed, while some Republicans have blamed the Biden administration's policies for the spike in unaccompanied minors. Understanding the situation at the border is where we start today.
Let's talk with Hamed Aleaziz, who is immigration reporter for BuzzFeed News. Hamed, thanks for being here.
Hamed Aleaziz: Thank you for having me.
Kai: Let's start with why we're even seeing more unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border right now. What's happening?
Hamed: I mean, you have a situation where last week, President Biden's senior advisor at the border mentioned how after several years of a restrictive immigration policy, that there appear to be pent-up hope for people at the border hoping to [unintelligible 00:02:31] protections in the US. As we've seen since the beginning of the administration, the number of unaccompanied children has only increased at the southern border.
Kai: What, if anything, do you know about the kids who are arriving recently? Are they mainly teenagers, are these young children?
Hamed: Yes, mostly teenagers. This is just a population that has continued to grow in the last several weeks, and like you said, they are in facilities at the border that are meant for adults.
Kai: There's a little bit of political debate about what drives children to migrate in the first place. What do you know about why these kids and teens have left their home countries?
Hamed: Well, I think we've seen that there have been issues in Central America regarding the economy, regarding natural disasters, regarding lack of good governance in certain areas. Thus far, we haven't had an opportunity to speak to one of these unaccompanied children that have come since the beginning of the Biden administration. That's something that I think is important, is to figure out what they were looking for coming to America.
Kai: The ways in which child migrants were held by the US government during the Trump administration, as I mentioned, really drew widespread outrage. What are the conditions of minors currently being held by Border Patrol and Health and Human Services? We know that there are 4,200 as of this weekend, but what are the conditions?
Hamed: Attorneys who interviewed children at one facility at the southern border, the Border Patrol facility said that it was, the children told them that it was overcrowded, that they hadn't been outside in a while, and that they were really seeking just to get back to their family members. These attorneys were quite concerned and really pushing for these children to be released from these Border Patrol stations. I mean, the issue we have right now is the Biden administration is really trying to clear these 4,200 unaccompanied children in Border Patrol stations and get them to these HHS facilities across the country that are not overcrowded and that are perhaps better prepared for caring for the children.
Kai: Can you explain the distinction there? The rule as I understand it is that border patrol is supposed to transfer custody of minors within 72 hours to Health and Human Services. How long are minors being held in these detention facilities that aren't meant to house children, and what is the distinction between those facilities and what happens when they go to HHS?
Hamed: Sure. I'd seen data at the end of last week that over 100 children had been in these Border Patrol stations for 10 days or more. That's obviously quite a bit past that 72-hour mark. The HHS facilities vary, but essentially, they're better prepared to educate the children, to give them more space to have people who are focused on working with minors. Obviously, they've come under criticism in the past several years and there have been a number of lawsuits, but I think right now, the issue is the administration knows. I mean, the DHS secretary said over the weekend that these stations are not meant for children, and so we need to get them out immediately.
Kai: Right. How many kids are coming every day? We know it's 4,200, but was there one big surge or is there a steady flow of kids, because I imagine that matters in terms of how it's managed.
Hamed: It varies, definitely, but they've seen days with several hundred unaccompanied children being apprehended and so obviously you have a situation where several hundred coming in and Border Patrol trying to get children to HHS and not being able to match the number of children being taken in as to the number being transferred to HHS. Now, the number of children in HHS custody has shot up as well.
HHS is really trying everything they can to find more space. The number of children in their custody is jumped from 8,200 as of last week to 9,200 as of Sunday. They've created this emergency intake site in Midland, Texas, to take in some children, to get them out of these overcrowded stations, and they're looking at opening up a Dallas Convention Center as well to take in [inaudible 00:07:20]
Kai: The Biden administration is going to deploy the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as we've said, to the southern border, to help with this processing. What does that mean for how quickly this can happen, or at least how quickly the children can be moved to facilities that are appropriate for them?
Hamed: I think it's just another way for them to support HHS and border patrol in finding shelter for these unaccompanied children, finding places for them to be other than these Border Patrol stations. The DHS secretary has already sought volunteers from across the agency, employees from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees asylum claims and the legal immigration system. They've actually been sent an email as of late last week, seeking volunteers to help HHS, if they want to be social, working at the HHS facilities with children. Helping these children to figure out who their sponsors are in the US and vetting them. It really does feel like an all-hands-on-deck situation.
Kai: Do you get a sense that the administration predicted this? President Biden did campaign on reversing some of the former President Trump's hardline immigration policies, including this very thing, this idea of what happens to minors who show up at the border. Was this surge something that you get a sense that the White House saw coming, or were they caught by surprise?
Hamed: It is hard to say definitively. Advocates have said that they had warned the Biden administration that an increase in numbers of children would be seen after they stop turning them around at the border like the Trump administration did. Obviously, it didn't work because- or their plans didn't work because the stations obviously have become overwhelmed and overcrowded.
Kai: Certainly, senior Republican officials, including former President Trump, have often used this issue as part of their politics, and some Republicans have said they blame the Biden administration for the surge. They say that his announcement of immigration reform urged people to begin migrating. Is there any truth to that? Do you have a sense that there's any truth to that?
Hamed: Right. I mean, we've been seeing an increase in unaccompanied children for several months now. Obviously it's been higher in the last two months, but it's always obviously people like Biden's advisor said, that there have been this pent-up hope. But to connect surges with US policy can be sometimes a tricky equation. I think at this point we'll have to see how the next few months go.
Kai: Can you remind us of President Trump's remain in Mexico policy? What was that policy, and what did it mean for the safety of people who were seeking asylum?
Hamed: Under the Trump administration, this was actually one of their solutions, their key policy measures to stop the increase in number of people at the border. In 2019, there was a really high number of families showing up at the southern border and the Trump administration doubled down on sending people to Mexico to stay there for the duration of their asylum cases that were processing through immigration courts, so there's more than 70,000 people that were kept there.
Advocates reported that they were facing extortion, kidnapping, violent crimes, and it was a really perilous situation for them. What the Biden administration did was immediately stop that policy, stop [inaudible 00:11:29] people into that program, and actually in the last several weeks have allowed some of those people to enter the US slowly. There's been around 1,500 that have been able to enter the US and to seek their asylum claims in the US.
Kai: How does that, if at all, relate to the unaccompanied minors situation at the border? Are they separate issues or was this part of it?
Hamed: This is separate in a way. Unaccompanied children up until early February were being turned around under this public health order that the Trump administration had in place as of last March.
Now, what happened in the fall is a federal judge actually blocked the policy and said it violated federal law, but in early February, an appeals court came back and said that the Biden administration, if they wanted to, they could actually continue to turn around children. They stayed the federal court's decision and the Biden administration decided not to, and since then we've seen this steady increase in unaccompanied children and the back up in the Border Patrol stations.
Kai: Hamed Aleaziz is immigration reporter for BuzzFeed News. Hamed, thanks so much for joining me.
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