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Exclusive: U.S. shelters for migrant kids launch new COVID protocols as facilities struggle with overcrowding

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·7-min read

Federally funded shelters for migrant children have been directed to increase COVID-19 testing while shortening the quarantine periods for minors in their care, according to guidance obtained by Yahoo News.

The guidance, issued last Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, advises shelters to “concurrently implement diagnostic testing regimes and shorten quarantine periods to seven days only if [unaccompanied children] are tested within 48 hours before the end of quarantine and the test is negative.” Previously, children at such facilities had been required to isolate with daily monitoring for 14, and then 10 days without testing in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

An HHS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the new interim COVID protocols, but the guidance states that “there is a compelling need to minimize UC [unaccompanied child] presence at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities,” which currently do “not have adequate space for physical distancing, quarantine of persons exposed to COVID-19, or isolation of ill or infected persons.”

The move is among a number of measures taken by federal agencies over the last several days to address overcrowding and prolonged detention of migrant children at Border Patrol facilities amid a surge of arrivals at the southern border.

Asylum seeking unaccompanied minors hold hands as they await transport after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on a raft in Penitas, Texas, on March 12, 2021. The unrelated minors are all from Honduras.   (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors await transport after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

According to data released last week by CBP, 100,441 people attempted to enter the U.S. in February without authorization along the southern border — a 28 percent increase from the previous month. Of that total, 9,457 were unaccompanied minors, children without lawful immigration status who attempted to enter the country alone or with someone other than a parent or legal guardian.

Legally, unaccompanied children should be held in such facilities only for up to 72 hours, after which they must be transferred into the custody of HHS and placed in an appropriate childcare facility until they can be safely released to a parent or sponsor. Over the last few years, reports of abuse, threats and even several deaths of children held in Border Patrol custody beyond the 72-hour cutoff have offered stark evidence of the risks kids face in such settings even without the added threat of COVID-19.

But kids cannot be released by border officials until a bed has been secured for them at an HHS-run facility. And due to the ongoing pandemic, such facilities have been operating at significantly reduced capacity over the last several months, forcing large numbers of children to fill jail-like holding facilities designed to temporarily detain adults at the border. According to CBS News, more than 4,200 unaccompanied children were being held in such facilities as of Sunday morning, with nearly 3,000 having been in CBP custody longer than 72 hours.

Both CBP and HHS have repeatedly declined requests to confirm the number of unaccompanied children detained at Border Patrol facilities at a given time, in part because the numbers fluctuate throughout the day. According to government data obtained by Yahoo News, there were 3,155 unaccompanied minors in CBP custody as of Monday afternoon.

 In this July 9, 2019, file photo, staff escort immigrants to class at the U.S. government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. (/Eric Gay/AP File)
Staff escort immigrants to class in 2019 at a U.S. government holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP File)

Late last month, the Biden administration reopened a Trump-era emergency influx facility to temporarily house up to 700 unaccompanied teens while they await reunification with a sponsor. At the time, advocates who work directly with migrant children told Yahoo News that they saw the move as a proactive, if less than ideal, step toward ensuring the government’s ability to safely house the growing number of unaccompanied minors in its care amid the pandemic.

But it wasn’t nearly enough.

On March 5, in another attempt to prevent kids from languishing in overcrowded Border Patrol stations, the refugee office notified its network of permanent, state-licensed childcare facilities that they may temporarily return to their full licensed capacity, as long as they remain within the safe occupancy levels prescribed by the CDC.

On Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced he had “directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support a government-wide effort over the next 90 days to safely receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. southwest border.”

The announcement offered few specifics regarding FEMA’s role in this effort, other than to work with HHS to “look at every available option to quickly expand physical capacity for appropriate lodging.” A spokesperson for HHS referred questions about FEMA to DHS, which did not respond to a request for more information.

Asylum seeking migrant mothers from Central America hold their children as they await transport after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on a raft in La Joya, Texas, U.S., March 14, 2021. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Mothers from Central America hold their children as they await transport after crossing the Rio Grande. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Over the weekend, BuzzFeed News reported that HHS was opening a new emergency intake center for migrant children to cut down on overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities. A local CBS affiliate also reported Sunday that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the federal government’s plans to relocate some migrant kids from the border to a holding facility in Midland, Texas, where they’d reportedly been transported by bus overnight, taking local officials by surprise.

In a statement provided to Yahoo News on Monday, a spokesperson for HHS confirmed that the refugee office had opened an emergency intake site in Midland, Texas, on Sunday.

According to the statement from HHS, the Midland facility “offers hard-sided shelter space for children” and is intended for temporary use in response to “the rapid increase in the pace of referrals” of unaccompanied children from Homeland Security officials at the border to the refugee office.

“The site will provide a safer and less over-crowded environment where children are cared for and processed as quickly as possible and either released to a sponsor or transferred to an ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] shelter for longer-term care,” read the HHS statement.

HHS also said that “a combination of the American Red Cross, contractors, and federal staff” will care for children transferred to the Midland facility, where they will be provided with “clean and comfortable sleeping quarters, meals, toiletries, laundry, and access to medical services,” in addition to undergoing a COVID-19 health screening.

HHS did not respond to specific questions regarding the Midland site’s capacity or how many children are currently being held there.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy addresses the press during the congressional border delegation visit to El Paso, Texas on March 15, 2021. (Justin Hamel / AFP via Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on a congressional border delegation visit to El Paso, Texas, on Monday. (Justin Hamel / AFP via Getty Images)

The Associated Press also reported Monday that the federal government is planning to use a convention center in Dallas to hold up to 3,000 migrant boys between the ages of 15 and 17 for up to 90 days starting as early as this week. A spokesperson for HHS did not respond to a request to confirm the Associated Press’s report, but a statement provided to Yahoo News last week made clear that the department “will utilize all available options to safely care for the children referred to us.”

The Biden administration’s response to the current influx of migrants at the southern border has received backlash from critics on both ends of the political spectrum. Progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., opposed the administration’s use of large-scale emergency influx facilities to house migrant children, while Republicans have blamed President Biden for causing the surge by rolling back several Trump-era immigration restrictions, even though the majority of adults, including asylum seekers, are still being immediately turned away at the border under a Trump-era emergency health order known as Title 42.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and several other GOP members of Congress continued to point the finger at Biden after touring the border near El Paso on Monday. “This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration,” said McCarthy. “There's no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis.”

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