Youth Services Insider is hearing that the number of Central American youth arriving at the Mexican border has skyrocketed in recent months, up from about 10 a day to 75 per day. That is still far less than when the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border peaked in 2014, but it is enough that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is aggressively recruiting for more beds.
HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which oversees the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program, has reached 85 percent capacity among its network of providers, which are tasked with caring for unaccompanied minors before they are either returned home or placed with family in the United States. The agency was already in the process of building its capacity, and has now asked UAC providers to add more beds ahead of agreed-upon timetables, according to a memo obtained by YSI.
ORR is also seeking an emergency shelter in Texas to “operate short term influx capacity.” The facility must have 500-bed capacity. This would likely require the use of a dormant military base, or conversion of some large department store-size building.
When unaccompanied minors from Central America arrive at the border, after a perilous journey through Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security is required to place them in the custody of ORR. The majority of the children arrive from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The agency then places children with contracted shelters around the country. (Many are in Texas, California and New York.) While unaccompanied minors from Mexico are often quickly returned across the border, minors from Central America are infrequently returned home. More often, they are placed with family members in the U.S. and slated for a court date to determine a claim of asylum.
UAC has been a subject of some contention since 2012, when the number of kids coming to the border exploded. The program, started by the George W. Bush administration, used to take in less than 10,000 children each year. In 2014, 68,451 unaccompanied minors arrived at the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The surge forced HHS to spend hundreds of millions more on beds for the minors, and many were living on Texas military bases while awaiting a less restrictive placement.
Republicans have blamed the Obama administration for encouraging the practice of parents sending their children north alone. Democrats have argued that the children are fleeing horrific conditions in countries that are gripped with gang violence.
In June, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would significantly reform the process for Central American unaccompanied minors. H.R. 495, authored by Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) would keep unaccompanied minors in Homeland Security’s custody for up to 30 days. It would also end the differential treatment of Central American children; they would be subject to a hasty return home, the same as Mexican children.
Carter’s bill does not currently have a companion in the Senate. A similar bill in the previous Congress was championed on the Senate side by the former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R), who is currently the Attorney General.
Last summer, the Department of Homeland Security executed an operation focused on the payment of smugglers to get unaccompanied minors to the border. That operation led to more than 400 arrests, many of them undocumented parents or relatives who had paid for children to arrive.