What is Joe Biden doing to cope with a rise in unaccompanied child migrants?

By Amanda Holpuch

Joe Biden’s promise of a more “fair, safe and orderly” immigration system is facing an early test as the number of children seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border has increased this year.

On Biden’s first day in office, the president began reversing the policies of Donald Trump, who sought to reduce all forms of migration. But more is needed to respond to the increase in unaccompanied children at the border – 9,457 of whom were taken into US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody in February, the most since May 2019.

This is what we know so far:

Why is there an increase in children at the border?

The issues driving families and children to the border in the past decade remain: the climate crisis, violence, unemployment and poverty. Two devastating hurricanes in Honduras in November and the coronavirus pandemic have added to the desperate conditions. And each year migration increases when the weather warms up.

All of this is colliding with a change in the US approach to migration. For four years, Donald Trump introduced policies that made it much more difficult to migrate to the US and essentially brought asylum to a halt last year – but people kept coming. Biden has revoked some Trump-era asylum measures and children who were being turned away two months ago are now being processed because Biden stopped a rule known as Title 42 from being applied to children.

Florence Chamberlin, managing attorney for the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense, told the Guardian last week from Mexico: “Title 42 and other policies of the previous administration have created an artificial back-up at the border of these children that has compounded the danger and trauma that they fled.”

It is also believed that at least some of the unaccompanied children initially approached the border with parents or other family members and were turned away, leading some families to send their children alone to improve their chances of entering the US. The border patrol also separates many children who are with non-parents, even when those adults may be the child’s primary guardian.

What happens to children after they seek asylum?

For children seeking asylum on their own, the first step is to contact a border patrol official either at a legal port of entry or while trying to cross the border outside those checkpoints. Those unaccompanied children are supposed to be moved within three days out of border patrol custody to the health department’s office of refugee resettlement’s (ORR) network of shelters. From there, they are placed with a sponsor, usually a family member or friend already living in the US while their legal cases play out.

Child welfare experts say it is essential children are moved to a sponsor as quickly as possible - but it is not happening very efficiently. As of Monday, nearly 1,400 children had been in border patrol custody for more than three days, according to CBS News. In a call with reporters on Wednesday, CBP officials would not provide information on how many children were in its custody and concerns are growing about the number of children detained in border patrol facilities.

Troy Miller, the acting CBP commissioner, said: “We’re doing everything that is possible to move the children out of our custody as quickly as we should, in a safe and healthy manner.”

Why are children still being detained?

Precisely because the process of getting children to sponsors is not moving quickly enough. The Biden administration has taken steps to improve its efficiency, and other changes are rumored to be on the way, but it is also inheriting the changes Trump made to shrink shrink asylum and refugee processing.

Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said: “What we saw under the last administration was, yes, there were times when there were a lot of unaccompanied children in government custody and those were really due to policies that were cruel and awful and on purpose. It wasn’t because the system couldn’t process the children.”

What is Biden doing about this?

ORR shelters usually have capacity for 13,600 children, but this was reduced by 40% because of the pandemic. This week, Biden opened the shelters to full capacity.

The administration has also introduced several measures to streamline the sponsor process, including improving information sharing between the many agencies involved and allowing shelter operators to pay for transportation of undocumented children if their sponsors couldn’t – which previously only happened with special approval.

Biden on Wednesday resurrected a program shuttered by Trump that allows children to apply for asylum from their home countries, instead of making the dangerous journey north.

And it is expected that the Biden administration will act on a long-held request by advocates to send health department officials to work with the border patrol, which could expedite matching children with sponsors.

Perhaps the most controversial change has been Biden’s decision to reopen the remote Carrizo Springs influx facility in Texas for children aged 13 to 17. The administration is also considering opening additional influx shelters in California and Virginia.

Why is the influx shelter controversial?

Influx facilities are meant to be temporary and are not subject to the same licensing as permanent shelters. The news about Carrizo Springs prompted criticism of the administration returning to “kids in cages”, from prominent figures on the left and right. But many advocates have said despite their serious concerns these shelters are preferable to the alternative available today: keeping children at a border patrol facility while sponsors are vetted.

What happens next?

Independent advocates are monitoring what happens at the shelters, how long children are being kept at border patrol stations and how quickly children are safely placed with sponsors. There were 8,100 children in ORR custody as of Monday.

A group of senior administration officials visited the border over the weekend and briefed Biden about their findings on Wednesday.

Crucially, the border is still mostly closed to asylum seekers. Unaccompanied children are being allowed in, but most single adults are not. Some families and people in the Remain in Mexico program have also been admitted since Biden took office.

The US southern border coordinator, Roberta Jacobson, said on Wednesday in Spanish and English at a White House briefing: “La frontera está cerrada,” or “the border is closed.”