Biden Administration Is Still Struggling to Care for Migrant Children
In an emergency shelter in the Texas desert, migrant teens are housed in long, wide trailers, with little room for recreation and little to do on hot summer days, lawyers say and other children’s advocates who visited them.
Some kids say they can wait over a month to meet someone who can help them connect them with a family member or other sponsor in the United States. Some report episodes of food poisoning and say they have to wash their clothes in a bathroom sink.
In one case, two siblings at the shelter, a former camp for oil workers in Pecos, Texas, were given different case managers by the government. A brother has found his mother. The other was left at the shelter and remains there, according to a lawyer who visited the shelter.
The living conditions of migrant children who arrive unaccompanied in the United States and are taken into custody appear to have improved since the beginning of the spring, when images of them piled up in customs and border protection facilities were revealed. attracted criticism from around the world.
But testimonies from people who can visit emergency shelters – where children are sent awaiting the chance to be handed over to family members, friends or better-equipped state-run facilities – suggest that the The Biden administration and the private contractors hired for the facilities still struggle to provide good child care.
The Pecos shelter, home to around 800 teenagers, is one of four out of a dozen that the Biden administration set up this spring to deal with the extraordinary number of migrant children arriving alone at the border with Mexico.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the shelters, has just extended Pecos’ contract to keep the facility open until at least November, and plans to start housing young children there as well, data shows. of the federal contract.
The department’s internal watchdog opened an investigation this week into reports of substandard conditions and care at another of the remaining emergency facilities, the large shelter at Fort Bliss military base in El Paso. More than half of the thousands of migrant children currently in emergency shelters are being held in Pecos and Fort Bliss, according to internal data obtained by The New York Times.
The ministry did not respond to questions about the Pecos shelter. Xavier Becerra, the health and social services secretary, visited the Fort Bliss shelter in late June and said conditions had improved.
The government largely bans an exterior review of emergency shelters, citing the pandemic and the privacy of children, many of whom have fled violence and poverty in their own countries to come to the United States. But some lawyers and others who work to help children access the facilities, and their descriptions of the conditions help clarify what life is like there.
Jonathan Ryan, an attorney for Raices, a nonprofit organization in Texas that provides free legal services to migrants, said in a statement to The Times that the children he met felt “confined, distressed and like themselves.” they were punished ”.
Another lawyer said the government had focused on moving the children out of border facilities and into emergency shelters set up quickly to house them. But he hadn’t acted with the same sense of urgency to get the children out of emergency shelters.
The shelters were built to be temporary spaces where young migrants could be cared for after what was often a traumatic journey and their initial arrest by customs and border protection. But the average stay in shelters was over a month.
“This is about preventing” a safeguard of children at border crossing facilities, where they are only supposed to be detained for up to 72 hours, said Leecia Welch, lawyer and senior director of legal and advocacy practice. of child protection at the National Center. for youth rights. “No one seems to care much about the dangerous conditions in which we send children to live for months on end. “
Under a 1997 settlement order, known as the Flores case, Welch and her colleagues inspect facilities holding children to monitor the government’s compliance with the agreement, which ensures protection for migrant children. government owned. His organization visited the Pecos refuge in June and July.
The Department of Health and Human Services has been responsive to early concerns raised by advocates and lawmakers about shelters. He closed two shelters shortly after they opened in April due to alarming conditions. And after concerns were raised about space at Fort Bliss, the department began limiting the number of children sent there.
The Biden administration has also been successful in placing more children in state-approved shelters where standards of care are generally much better than those offered by emergency shelters.
As of August 4, there were just over 4,300 children in emergency shelters and about 10,100 in shelters with higher standards of care, according to government figures. As of May 4, there were over 13,000 children in emergency shelters and about 9,000 in better-cared shelters.
In June, the Biden administration began offering Covid-19 vaccines to consenting children aged 12 and older, a spokeswoman said. And that more than doubled the number of case managers – a child’s ticket to be reunited with a family member or placed with another sponsor in the United States – earlier this spring.
But even an official from the health and social services office that oversees care admitted to a federal judge in June that there were not enough case managers to expedite the safe release of the children. The children should meet with a case manager once a week, the department said.
Alberto, a 17-year-old Guatemalan, said he spent a month at the Pecos shelter before meeting with a case manager. (Alberto is his middle name, which The Times agreed to use to protect his anonymity.)
In a recent interview, arranged by Raices, who provides him with legal services, Alberto described being locked in his double room for most of the 40 days he spent in Pecos. He said he couldn’t leave on his own. Staff let him out for meals, modest leisure, English lessons, and a five-minute phone call every eight days with his aunt, who he planned to live with when he arrived in the United States. United.
He said he felt like he was in a “cage,” a word that was used to describe the conditions of border patrol detention stations in the past when they were overflowing with migrant children.
When Alberto arrived in the United States on May 30, he spent a day at a border facility, well below the 72-hour maximum allowed by law. He said the officers there were nicer to him than the Pecos staff – a border patrol officer gave him apples, he said.
In Pecos, he said, he followed the days by watching television in his room. He saw roommates coming in and out, as they were united with family members or other sponsors. Not everyone at the shelter had to be locked in their room, he said, adding: “They didn’t treat everyone the same.”
Some days, he said, he felt sad and cried and regretted leaving Guatemala, where he said he feared for his life because he resisted recruiting criminal gangs.
“It didn’t look like there was going to be an exit, and it made me feel very desperate,” he said.
This was also the case for others at the Pecos shelter, Mr Ryan said in his statement. Most, he said, were upset by their case and the lack of communication with authorities as to when they could leave.
Mr Ryan said he has worked with migrant children, primarily those detained in Texas, for more than a decade, visiting most immigration and customs detention centers and shelters run by the department. state health and social services.
Conditions at the Pecos shelter, he said, are “among the toughest and most restrictive of all” of the shelters he has visited.
The previous two administrations also faced these challenges in 2014 and again in 2019, when similar criticisms were leveled. But when the number of children arriving alone at the southern border doubled between February and March this year, Mr Biden’s team were caught off guard without enough places to house them properly, in part because of cuts in the Trump era as well as in the pandemic-driven public. health restrictions.
Administration officials are committed to providing the best possible care for the children and have said the goal is to get the children out of federal custody and safely place them with a sponsor as quickly as possible.
“And now we’re just waiting for them to keep that promise,” said Wendy Young, president of the children’s advocacy organization Kids in Need of Defense.
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