WASHINGTON – Thousands of migrant children are being held in U.S. detention centers along the Mexican border as part of a surge in immigration of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence that could overwhelm President Biden’s attempt. to create a more humane approach for those seeking to enter the country.
The number of migrant children in custody along the border has tripled in the past two weeks to more than 3,250, according to federal immigration agency documents obtained by The New York Times, and many of them are being held in similar facilities. to jails for more than the three days allowed by law.
The problem for the administration is both the number of children crossing the border and what to do with them once they are in custody. Under the law, children are supposed to be transferred to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, but due to the pandemic, shelters until last week limited the number of children they could accommodate.
The growing number of unaccompanied children is just one element of a growing problem at the border. Border agents encountered a migrant at the border about 78,000 times in January, more than double the rate at the same time a year ago and higher than in any January in a decade.
Immigration authorities are expected to announce this week that there were nearly 100,000 arrests, including encounters at the port entrances, in February, according to people familiar with the agency’s latest data. Another 19,000 migrants, including adults and children, have been captured by border agents since March 1.
“We are at a tipping point,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, an independent research group. “How quickly can the government process people safely and humanely?”
The situation resembles the huge wave of migrant children that filled detention centers in 2014 that preceded the harsh crackdown imposed by President Donald J. Trump. Seven years ago, Mr. Biden, the vice president at the time, traveled to Guatemala and declared that “the current situation is unsustainable and unsustainable.”
Now, Biden faces an immigration challenge of his own, one that his administration has refused to call a “crisis,” but which nonetheless could become a potent political weapon for his Republican adversaries and shift their efforts to legalize millions of immigrants. undocumented.
The president has proposed to reform the nation’s decades-old immigration system, making things easier for asylum seekers and refugees, expanding legal avenues for foreign workers, increasing opportunities for family-based immigration, and greatly reducing the threats of mass deportations. His State Department announced Monday that foreigners rejected after January 20, 2020, under Trump’s travel ban, could attempt to obtain visas without paying additional fees.
But his approach – widely reopening the nation’s borders to vulnerable children in what he hopes will be a welcoming contrast to Trump’s building legal and physical barriers – is already at risk due to the grim realities of migration patterns. that have rocked the world for years. Feeling a shift in tone and focus after Trump’s defeat, migrants are once again fleeing the poverty, violence and devastation left by the hurricanes and heading north toward the United States.
Hundreds of migrant families are also being released in the United States after being detained at the border, prompting predictable attacks by conservatives.
Liberal politicians are denouncing the expansion of detention centers and criticizing the continued imposition of Trump-era rules aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus among immigrants. And advocates for separated families at the border during the Trump administration are pressuring the president to act faster to reunite them.
Together, they have put Biden on the defensive in the early days of his presidency as he tries to demonstrate a very different tone than his predecessor.
The immigration system that Mr. Biden envisions will take months, if not years, to fully implement, forcing the administration to scramble to find space for children and rely, for now, on a rule that quickly returns children. adults and most families to their countries of origin. .
For now, Biden has broken with his predecessor by failing to apply the pandemic emergency rule to children, meaning the United States remains responsible for caring for them until they are assigned to a sponsor.
More than 1,360 of the children detained at border facilities were incarcerated for more than the maximum 72 hours allowed by law despite being referred for placement in shelters by Homeland Security, according to one of the documents, dated Monday. One hundred sixty nine of the children are under 13 years of age.
The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that the number of children in its custody was constantly changing. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
Shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services typically house about 13,600 young migrants, but as of Friday, space was restricted due to measures to deal with the pandemic. As of Sunday, the health agency had more than 8,100 unaccompanied minors in its shelters, putting the system 13 days away from its “maximum capacity target,” according to the documents.
The Biden administration has already opened an emergency influx center for children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, a shelter whose use during the Trump administration faced backlash.
Criticism is coming from all sides, even as the president tries to navigate the narrowest margins to get Congress to pass a once-in-a-generation immigration bill. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, said the continued detention of families in a tent “is not okay, it has never been okay, it will never be okay.”
And Republicans are already signaling that they plan to put the consequences of Biden’s immigration agenda at the center of their efforts to retake Congress in 2022.
They have pointed to Biden’s decision to gradually welcome asylum seekers who were forced to wait in Mexico for months under a Trump-era program. Trump, who harnessed the power of anti-immigrant sentiment during his 2016 campaign, warned in a statement last week of a “spiraling tsunami at the border” and predicted that “illegal immigrants from all corners of the earth will descend on our country. border and never be returned. “
Biden, briefed on the matter last week, sent his top administration officials to tour the facilities at the border this weekend. The administration has made disaster relief funds available to border communities, redirected agents from the northern border to the southern border, and is considering a pilot program that would place health officials at border facilities to expedite the search. of a sponsor by the children.
In anticipation of even more children arriving at the border, the administration on Friday ordered shelters to return to full capacity despite the pandemic.
Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who leads the House Homeland Security Committee, said Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, told him in a call last Friday that the administration was rushing to find more space for children. “You can’t just say we don’t have the space anymore,” Thompson said. “You have to start looking.”
During the campaign, Biden backed the shift from not detaining migrants and instead releasing them in the United States and tracking them with an ankle monitor or regular phone calls while their immigration cases are processed. The administration has come up with a plan that would eventually release families from long-term detention centers within 72 hours.
But for now, using the same pandemic rule the Trump administration did, the Biden administration has continued to turn away most migrants, except for unaccompanied children.
And almost as soon as Biden took office, senior administration officials publicly sought to dissuade migrants from traveling north, saying it would take time to unravel Trump’s policies. Previous public message campaigns, including the putting up of billboards in Central America to encourage migrants to stay at home, have failed.
“Realistically, you are targeting a population of people who are desperate,” Mayorkas said in an interview. “It’s not going to work 100 percent, but if it’s effective at all, it’s critically important not just for what we’re trying to do, but for the well-being of the people.”
Some families are being released in the United States. Border agents have been unable to turn away migrant families in South Texas due to a change in Mexican law that prohibits the detention of young children.
Administration officials point to a series of ongoing actions aimed at fixing what they say is a broken immigration system: improving communications between the Border Patrol and the health department, even if children who are transported to the centers to long term they are boys or girls; streamline background checks for shelter employees; and vaccinating border workers against the coronavirus.
They are also accelerating efforts to find new facilities to care for children during the weeks and months it takes to find relatives or adoptive parents. They are considering disused school buildings, military bases and federal facilities that could quickly become acceptable places for children.
And they are restarting a program in Central America that will allow children to apply for asylum without making the dangerous crossing to the border. Trump ended the program, which according to Biden administration officials would eventually reduce the flow of migrant children to the United States.
But all that will take time. Meanwhile, officials say they acknowledge that the pressure on Biden will only increase.
“Every step of the way we are looking at where the bottlenecks are and then we try to remove those bottlenecks and yes, it will not be resolved by tomorrow,” said Esther Olavarria, the White House deputy director of immigration for National Policy. Advice. “But if you don’t start doing each of these things, you’re never going to solve the problem.”
Annie karni Y Maggie haberman contributed to reporting.