HOUSTON (AP) – President Joe Biden’s administration is instructing long-term facilities that support immigrant children to lift capacity restrictions enacted during the coronavirus pandemic to open much-needed beds in a system that addresses needs every older times.
A memorandum issued Friday by the US Department of Health and Human Services tells service providers to “temporarily increase capacity to fully licensed capacity … while implementing and adhering to strict measures. mitigation of COVID-19 “. It’s not immediately clear how many beds will be available beyond the roughly 7,000 that were online last month. HHS ‘fully licensed capacity was more than 13,000 beds at the end of last year.
Some facilities have cut their capacity by up to half during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, hundreds of children waiting to be placed in the HHS system are being detained by the United States Border Patrol in tents or large cold cells that are not equipped to house minors. Images and stories of overcrowded Border Patrol cells in 2018 and 2019 sparked outrage, with accounts of families and young children fending for themselves without adequate food and water.
Lifting pandemic-related limits could increase the risk of the coronavirus spreading within HHS facilities, especially as more children enter the system. But the organizations that run HHS facilities and some advocates have lobbied for more beds to be made available. if done safely, rather than the alternative of keeping children in Border Patrol facilities longer or placing them in expensive unlicensed emergency centers.
“Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no 0% risk scenario, particularly in congregated settings,” reads the memo, first reported by CNN. “Therefore, ORR facilities must plan for and expect to have COVID-19 cases.”
HHS has previously authorized facility operators to bill the government for travel expenses when a child is released to a parent or other sponsor. Some families cannot easily afford the hundreds of dollars to bring in a child and guardian, and disputes over payment can sometimes delay the release of a child for several days.
Agents detain about 400 children a day without the company of a parent or guardian, a sharp increase from last month. There is concern that those numbers will continue to rise.
Biden ended former President Donald Trump’s practice of expelling unaccompanied children under a public health declaration enacted during the pandemic, though his administration continues to expel immigrant families and adults. Some former Trump administration officials have accused Biden of inspiring immigrants to try to enter the US illegally, even though the numbers with Biden have not peaked with Trump.
The practice of expelling children was harshly criticized and often returned them to dangerous situations without having been given the opportunity to apply for asylum or speak to a lawyer. The Associated Press has reported that the underlying public health statement was issued under pressure from former Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump issued a statement on Friday alleging that “the border is now totally out of control thanks to the disastrous leadership of Joe Biden.”
“We did not follow our advice or the advice of former President Trump on immigration policy, which was not only inhumane but ineffective for the past four years,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded on Friday. “We are going to chart our own way forward, and that includes treating children with humanity and respect and ensuring that they are safe when they cross our borders.”
In recent days, Biden has also come under fire from Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other Republicans for freeing immigrant families in South Texas. Border authorities have stopped expelling families with young children from some Texas cities due to a policy change in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In several cities, local governments and advocacy groups test newly released families for COVID-19 and direct people with the virus to shelters or hotel rooms reserved for them.