In February, the new Biden administration came under fire for opening the first of several emergency detention center to house unaccompanied migrant children coming across our nation’s southern border.
A refugee center, no matter how humanely operated, is a woefully inferior alternative to placing these children with stable foster families or relatives, which has been the federal government’s stated goal. But now, with some Border Patrol holding facilities for children standing at 1,640% of capacity, it’s safe to say things aren’t getting any better.
Does the president have an actual plan?
The Biden administration, in the new president’s first days in office, commendably ended a cruel Trump administration policy of splitting up families that migrate illegally across the border. Nor would Border Patrol agents any longer turn away unaccompanied minors. But it’s hard to see that the Biden administration has a practical alternative strategy of its own.
The administration rushed to show the world that the United States would now respond to the border crisis more humanely, with Vice President Kamala Harris at the helm of the effort, but clearly that was easier said than done.
“The policymakers came in with a policy change, but then had no plan in place to implement that plan,” Joe Frank Martinez, sheriff of Val Verde County, Texas, told CNN. “People are going to continue to come in mass numbers, people are going to die, but something has to be done quick.”
A growing number of unaccompanied migrant children are crossing the border and, at present, about 12,900 of them are being held in U.S. Health and Human Services shelters. Another 5,300 are being held in Border Patrol facilities. Border Patrol policy dictates that all detainees, including children, should be transferred out of the agency’s custody within three days, but many unaccompanied children have been in Border Patrol facilities for longer than 15 days.
The Biden administration blames the Trump administration for much of the problem — and fairly so. For four years, the Trump administration did its best to dismantle the most compassionate aspects of our nation’s system for dealing with unaccompanied migrant children, more interested in sending a message of zero tolerance — cross the border and you’ll regret it — than caring for kids humanely. Trump slashed funding for refugee services, forcing many shelters and resettlement offices to close.
“The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in a statement last week. “We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures required to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed long ago.”
The Biden administration also has blamed the pandemic, which is less convincing. To be sure, finding sufficient numbers of beds and host families for unaccompanied children becomes a greater challenge in these times of social distancing, but rising to the occasion should be the expected for an agency — the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — built on crisis management. The agency, established almost 70 years ago, has approximately 80,000 employees and annual budget of about $1.2 trillion.
The sad truth is that the last three American presidents have struggled with the growing problem of children crossing the border. In 2009, slightly more than 19,400 children were taken into custody. By 2014, that number had soared to 68,000. And the number of border crossings this year is on track to set a new record.
But Joe Biden, first as a candidate and now as president, has made a point of saying he would make immigration reform a top priority and fix intractable problems — such as kids stewing in detention centers — that other presidents could or would not.
It’s on him to stand and deliver.
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