Matt Katz: It's The Takeaway. I'm Matt Katz, reporter in the WNYC newsroom in this week for Tanzina Vega. Under the Biden administration, we've seen a rising number of asylum seekers and migrants reach the US border. Although Trump-era policies to prevent asylum seekers from actually entering the US are still in effect, the number of children who are being allowed into the country in order to officially request asylum has risen during Biden’s first five months.
At a Senate committee hearing, Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said that the number of those asylum-seeking children temporarily detained in unaccommodating border patrol facilities has fallen.
Alejandro Mayorkas: On March 29, more than 5,700 children were in border patrol stations. Two days ago, there were 455. The challenge is not behind us, but the results are dramatic.
Matt Katz: Instead of being held for long periods of time by the border patrol, children are sent to the Department of Health and Human Services, where they are placed in more accommodating but still temporary facilities. This week, HHS said there were nearly 20,000 children in its custody. What does HHS custody look like? Recent reporting from the AP, reveals a network of new HHS facilities, some close to reaching capacity, and some that may not have been fully vetted to keep children safe.
For more on this, I'm joined by Garance Burke, global investigative reporter for the Associated Press. Garance, nice to speak with you again.
Garance Burke: Great to be here with you, Matt.
Matt Katz: Let's begin by breaking down the numbers. How does the number of migrant children crossing the border to seek asylum compare with the numbers that we saw under the Trump administration?
Garance Burke: What we've seen in the last few months is really a dramatic rise in the number of migrant children coming into the United States, and that's because under Trump last year, there was a health order that the administration put in place that was aimed at keeping migrants outside of US borders extensively with the goal of keeping coronavirus outside of the US borders. Although our reporting found that this order was actually more put into place due to political influence from the Vice President's office.
That said, when Biden came into office, the new administration lifted that health order, allowing unaccompanied kids, kids traveling without their parents to come in. We now as you're seeing have nearly 20,000 children in facilities, and the media has largely been kept out. Reporters haven't been able to document what's happening, particularly, clearly.
Matt Katz: What's the big difference between where they're going now compared to where they might have gone under the Trump administration? Many of them are not being held in these border patrol facilities for long periods of time, they're going to somewhat more permanent shelters?
Garance Burke: Actually, under Biden, the administration has opened up a new facility that we hadn't seen before. They're called Emergency Intake Sites. These facilities are able to hold thousands of children at a time. Think about it, it's not something that we do in the US Child Welfare system, have kids staying in facilities with more than 1,000 other children. They're typically in places like convention centers, military bases, but in contrast to what we saw under Obama or under Trump, kids aren't guaranteed access to education or recreation or necessarily access to legal counsel in these new unlicensed emergency facilities.
Matt Katz: What else did your reporting tell you about the conditions in these new emergency intake sites operated by the Department of Health and Human Services?
Garance Burke: That's right. Absolutely. It's HHS. HHS has been scrambling to find people who can staff these facilities. As the number of unaccompanied children grew so quickly, they were calling for federal officials from so many different agencies to come and volunteer and help staff these facilities. They're also asking for volunteers off the street, sometimes with really unclear vetting processes as to how these people who came in to make bracelets with the kids would actually be vetted.
What we found through getting exclusive data is that about half of all migrant children currently detained in the US are packed into these emergency intake sites that are holding more than 1,000 other kids. Attorneys and advocates and mental health experts are concerned because these mass shelters are in some cases, endangering children's health and safety.
Matt Katz: Have you been able to get access to these shelters, to walk inside and see what's going on?
Garance Burke: The government says it needs to restrict access to these shelters due to extra precautions during the pandemic. They have been releasing daily numbers, which is more than say, what happened under the Trump administration if you remember. They've released some photos, but reporters, by and large, have not been able to get in. What's interesting is that they are relying on this network of government contractors, nonprofits, private companies that get paid through taxpayer dollars to run some of these facilities.
One large facility in Houston abruptly closed last month after it was revealed that children were being given plastic bags instead of being able to access the restroom. I think there's a lot of questions about which facilities have what standard of care for migrant children, who again are escaping often situations of violence in Central America, and exactly how those standards are being overseen.
Matt Katz: I wonder if there was a better way to deal with these children, considering so many came over so quickly. Do advocates for these immigrants have a different solution? The Biden administration can spend years vetting operators of these facilities, going through hiring, they needed shelters open ASAP to deal with all these kids crossing the border. Is there a better idea proposal out there in terms of what to do with these tens of thousands of kids?
Garance Burke: What the Biden administration says is that their focus has really been on getting the kids out of the border patrol stations, which really are no place for a child, I think everyone agrees. Once they get them out of border patrol stations, they have this conundrum of where exactly they should be placed. Under Trump, the number of government contractors who were running these facilities dropped dramatically. Overnight, they had to stand up somewhere for the children to go.
Advocates and attorneys say, all of that's good and well, but why hadn't they focused on getting more smaller shelters and smaller foster care programs up and running, before allowing so many children to come in, and that there could have been a way to manage this new influx more smoothly in a way that would be more accommodating for kids because in some cases, we're talking about kids who are toddlers, kids under the age of 12. The bulk are teens, but they do have this population of really young children who are arriving, and advocates and attorneys, of course, say putting younger children in facilities with a lot of other kids is not a good plan.
Matt Katz: These toddlers, are they coming in with their older siblings? Is that how they are actually physically crossing the border?
Garance Burke: It really depends, Matt. Recently, for instance, I saw that border patrol agents found five unaccompanied migrant girls ranging from seven years old to just 11 months old near the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas. I spoke with a father who fled El Salvador after his village was targeted in a massacre. He came to the US four years ago and had hoped to welcome his wife and eight-year-old daughter here, but they were turned around at the border in March and expelled to Mexico under that health order we were talking about earlier.
That little eight-year-old girl crossed again by herself and was placed in a government shelter in Brownsville. Her dad was so upset because he couldn't figure out where she was, and he was told he had to pay $1,300 for her to be flown out. If he didn't pay, he wouldn't get her along for a much longer time.
You hear these stories of they're not family separations in the way that we saw under the Trump administration in which kids were forcibly taken from their parents, but some of the confusion around these border health orders and who they apply to mean that many migrant families are making this decision to separate from their children and send them into the US alone.
Matt Katz: It's like a family separation policy that's not forced, but de facto, in that, the parents see the only way of finding safety for their kids is to send them alone across because they're letting kids in under this COVID Health order but not adults, right?
Garance Burke: Well, that's what this father from El Salvador was saying. He's so concerned about his family staying in their home country because of the violence they had escaped there. His daughter ultimately was released to him in late April, after an advocacy organization intervened to get the government to pay for the cost of her airfare. I think that many families are facing this choice, how to secure safety for their children. Frankly, it's a real political issue for the Biden administration going forward, how exactly they'll deal with this.
Matt Katz: It's a political issue for the Biden administration, but they have not faced nearly the political and public uproar that the Trump administration faced for their family separation policy and the way they house kids, right?
Garance Burke: That's correct. Yes. There's certainly been many concerns raised by Republican legislators, who in the early days of this latest set of arrivals were comparing the photos that we saw of kids sleeping under foil blankets in border patrol stations to what Democrats had raised so many concerns about under Trump.
Democrats have largely been, I would say, certainly not as straightened about the situation for migrant kids as perhaps some might have expected. I think there's a desire to wait and see how the administration handles this going forward, but what we do know is, for now, the Health and Human Services is absolutely relying on these emergency facilities, these mass shelters as a way to move children out of border patrol stations, and we just want to know more about what's happening inside of those.
Matt Katz: Garance Burke is a global investigative reporter for The Associated Press. Garance, thanks for your reporting and for telling us what you have learned about these shelters. We appreciate it.
Garance Burke: Thanks for having me, Matt.
Matt Katz: We reached out to HHS for comments and as of this airing, they have still not responded to us. If they do get back to us, we'll have that statement up on thetakeaway.org.
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