Biden’s administration hires the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to manage and care for an unprecedented increase in unaccompanied migrant children entering the US across the US-Mexico border.
The deployment is designed to help tackle a growing logistical crisis in which the Biden government has resorted to the use of detention facilities and tented shelters that some immigration advocates have condemned as inhuman and unsuitable for children.
President Joe Biden reversed the Trump-era policy of rejecting migrant children who enter the United States shortly after taking office without their parents. However, his government has made efforts to timely complete the process of protection and placement with a verified sponsor – usually a parent or other family member who lives in the United States – and to find places in facilities that are suitable for the placement of minors are.
To cope with the recent influx of minors – around 700 have come to the US in the last few days, according to the Washington Post – Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Saturday that FEMA would help accommodate unaccompanied minors protect and transfer across the border in the next 90 days.
There are some goals that the administration would like to achieve through this collaboration.
Under US law, children must be removed from border patrol stations to emergency shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. However, according to the Washington Post, the DHS routinely failed to achieve that goal. Instead, children are held for an average of 108 hours before being transferred.
The government has reportedly asked volunteers to help the general surge in migrants. And on Friday, DHS and HHS announced plans to work faster to match unaccompanied children with guardians. Currently, HHS is also reportedly overwhelmed by unaccompanied children and is taking care of children faster than it can find sponsors for them.
These administrative backlogs mean that the shelters are overcrowded, as Vox’s Nicole Narea explained. And because emergency shelters for children are full – also because the restrictions related to Covid-19 have reduced the available space – almost 4,000 children are put in prison cells and other facilities for adults. The Post reports that lawyers representing migrant children warn that these shelters are “dangerously overcrowded”.
“A Border Patrol facility is not a place for a child,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “We are working with HHS to address the needs of unaccompanied children, which is only made difficult given the protocols and restrictions required to protect public health and the health of the children themselves.”
FEMA has played this role before. In 2014, the Obama administration reached out to the agency to help build temporary shelters and processing stations on military bases to increase the number of unaccompanied minors arriving.
Vox’s Nicole Narea reported that immigrant lawyers are concerned about the safety of temporary facilities the Biden government has used to deal with the overflow.
“We cannot repeat these mistakes and expose more children to the long-term physical and mental health effects of incarceration,” Oliver Torres, senior trainee attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said in a February statement. “The return to the failed pre-Trump child incarceration model is a missed opportunity to meaningfully redefine our immigration system, particularly with regard to immigrant children.”
Biden promised to change US immigration policy – but this has proven challenging
While the Biden administration has reversed Trump’s policy on unaccompanied children, it has kept its policies of dismissing single adults and some families under pandemic restrictions intact.
On other fronts, Biden has tried to turn his back on Trump in whole or in part. In February, Biden partially lifted a ban on legal immigration by allowing family members of U.S. citizens and green card holders to immigrate to the U.S., as well as people selected through the diversity visa lottery.
Biden has endorsed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would offer an estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States a route to citizenship that is unlikely to find Republican support.
With Democrats needing at least 10 GOP votes in the Senate to defeat the filibuster, the party is also working on limited reform efforts, including a law that would give legal status to about 325,000 farm workers, who are backed by some Republicans in the House.
Parliament is expected to vote next week on both this bill, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, and the Dream and Promise Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. The bills fall short of the reforms Biden has called for, such as an eight-year roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented population of the U.S., but Democrats hope they can get just enough bipartisan support to make progress on implementing Biden’s immigration agenda achieve.